Are colleges over-promising?

Jeff Dieffenbach


EdSurge Higher Ed (No. 192 | November 22 2019) posed this question: Are colleges overpromising?

Here’s more context and my response (a version of which was published in No. 193 | November 29 2019):


“If our career aspirations surpass the available opportunities, and our self-perceived talents exceed our actual talents, we are surely destined to be miserable at work, and perhaps this explains the prevalence of low employee engagement ratings despite more and more money being devoted to giving employees a consumer-like experience. The equivalent in the world of love would be if everyone aspired to date movie stars like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie: the result would be an epidemic of single people.”

—Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Becky Frankiewicz, both executives at ManpowerGroup, in an op-ed that argues colleges overpromise and set up unrealistic expectations for students

We’re curious what people think of this argument. Are colleges overpromising? Shouldn’t students aim high?

With the caveat that my experience attending college is now decades in the rear view mirror, and that my visibility into my sons’ much more recent experiences was limited, the short answer to the “Colleges over-promising?” question is no. At least, I don’t see colleges making the explicit, tactical pitch to the effect of “Come to Wonderful U, launch a wonderful career.”

More broadly, though, I think there *IS* a general “in the ether” perception that college is the golden ticket. And historically, that’s been true, at least from a lifetime earnings perspective.

In an era with much less granularity of information, the college degree was for employers the best signal going. It just wasn’t necessarily a very good signal. With at least the potential for much higher resolution around competencies that job candidates offer and that job functions require, we can do better at making an effective match. And that “better” may result in a college degree meaning less than it did in the past.

The new mantra must be “always learning.” It’s not so important where this learning comes from as it is that this learning is integrated with, valued by, and at least partly paid for by work. That no longer needs to mean beginning at age 22 with a degree (and a big stack of debt) in hand. Why not start at age 20? Or 18? And with the mindset that it will come in smaller chunks, just-in-time, and lifelong.

What does it mean for a team to learn?

Jeff Dieffenbach

Moose skin boat, Canadian Museum of History

A colleague of mine studies how teams learn, perform, and learn while performing. After a bit of mulling on this topic, it occurred to me that I didn’t really know what it meant for a team to learn separate from learning acquired from the individual team members.

I failed to adequately express my confusion and the conversation didn’t really get anywhere before dropping off both of our respective front burners. The question that I should have asked, but only recently formulated, is this: when a team disbands, in what form does team learning continue to exist?

Fast forward a year or two. In the course of the MIT Open Learning Journal Club that I lead with another colleague, we read the excellent Joint interactions in large online knowledge communities: The A3C framework (Jeong 2017).

The A3C framework posits that when individual interact, they may do so with varying degrees of shared–or unshared–goals, processes, and outcomes. The authors elaborate on four degrees of this sharing, from least to most: attendance, coordination, cooperation, collaboration.

Attending individuals have individual goals, processes, and outcomes. Imagine, for instance, a learner in a massive open online course (MOOC) interested in learning for himself but not in any way invested in the learning of others.

At the other end of the spectrum, consider a symphony. Yes, the individual members may have their own goals, outcomes, and even processes, but in the actual performance of the symphony, those individual wants are subsumed by melding of talents into a single piece of art.

By comparison, coordination and cooperation fall somewhere in between. The distinctions (unimportant for the topic of what team learning means) are illustrated in this table.

The article introduces the term “stigmergy,” the mediation of team interaction via artifacts. By virtue of the existence of an artifact (for instance, a job aid, training manual, or how-to video), it’s not necessary for all team members to participate in all facets of creating the artifact. Rather, they might contribute a specific part of the artifact along the way.

More important, the artifact serves future members of the team, or even members of different teams who subsequently encounter the artifact after the original team has disbanded.

What does it mean for a team to learn? It’s the collection of artifacts (including the documentation of the processes that arrived at those artifacts) created by the team in the course of carrying out its work.

postscript 2019-07-09: In doing some reading on and thinking about the topic, it occured to me that “team learning” goes beyond just artifacts to include the team members themselves, to the extent that they remain available to be asked by others for lessons learned.

How micro is too micro?

IMG_6495Kana Okano, Steve Nelson, Jakub Kaczmarzyk, Jeff Dieffenbach

As part of my work with the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili), I had the good fortune to be part of an MIT team that conducted “science of learning” research at the Masie Learning 2017 conference in Orlando.

With the help of 150 Masie Learning 2017 conference participants, an MIT research team set out to address the hot topic of micro-learning. The participants interacted with one of three variations of an elearning video on one of the conference themes, cybersecurity. The MIT team used EEG headbands to measure attention during the learning experience and a post-test and survey the next day to capture knowledge gained.

. . .

Taking a cue from one of the conference themes, cybersecurity, the MIT team created three elearning video variations: “Original” (the original 8-minute video), “Interrupted” (the same content as Original, but interrupted three times with short unrelated work tasks), and “1.5x” (the same content as Original, but increased to 1.5x the speed of the Original video.

. . .

The mean scores of the Original and Interrupted cases are essentially identical, with the 1.5x case trailing by a bit. However, the differences are not statistically significant–that is, none of the three variants can be said to have outperformed the others (the error bars represent the standard error of the mean).

. . .

The mean scores of the late morning case are the highest, with the early morning scores the lowest. The two afternoon means fall in the middle. The difference between the late morning and early morning scores are statistically significant, but the differences between late morning and both afternoon scores and between both afternoon scores and early morning are not (the error bars represent the standard error of the mean).

  • Full research report with photographs is here
  • Video of our project outline at the Sun opening session is here
  • Video of our presentation of results at the Wed closing session is here


As part of our conference research effort, my colleague Kana and I had the great fortune to briefly meet former First Lady Michelle Obama. In her keynote talk and in her brief conversation with us, she was the epitome of strength, grace, and thoughtfulness.


Who will be the last to pay a quarter of a million dollars for a college education?

college-costReposted from Medallion Learning blog

At the nation’s most expensive college, a four-year education now costs upwards of a quarter of a million dollars (Northeastern, we’re looking at you). Debates about the value of this education continue to rage. Most recently, the 2014 PayScale College ROI Report [1] allows readers to rank nearly 900 undergraduate institutions based on metrics including 20 year net ROI and annual ROI.

Let’s set aside for a moment the necessary simplifications embedded in the report’s methodology. Harvey Mudd College tops the 20 year net ROI ranking at just shy of one million dollars. At nearly 12%, the Georgia Institute of Technology leads the way on annual ROI. At the other end of the spectrum, Shaw University trails the 20 year net ROI pack at NEGATIVE $156,000 and the annual ROI list at -11.9%. That’s if you graduate—only a quarter of its students do.

Overall, the average 20 year net ROI for the ~900 schools comes in at about $230,000 with an ROI a shade less than 5% a year. Sadly, only half of all students embarking on this expensive path even graduate. Imagine that you’re one of these fortunate students. Just what is it that you’re getting?

The Lumina Foundation, working with Gallup, tackled that question as part of its 2013 study, “What America Needs to Know About Higher Education Redesign” [2]. The message from colleges and universities to its students rings positive—96% of chief academic officers at these institutions assert extreme or somewhat confidence “in their institution’s ability to prepare students for success in the workforce.”

Great news! Or is it? What do those doing the hiring think? That storm cloud rolling in brings the opinion of business leaders—only 11% strongly agree that “today’s college graduates have the skills and competencies that their business needs.”

Clearly, a disconnect exists between what colleges and universities offer and what employers need. What’s a poor student to do? Six figures is a lot to pay for a degree that doesn’t deliver … but don’t try getting a white collar job without one.

While it’s fair to be skeptical of Lumina’s finding that only 9% of business leaders claim “where the candidate received their degree is very important in hiring decisions” (sorry, Harvard; bad news MIT; you’re out of luck, Stanford), one cannot avoid the fact that a full 84% share that “the amount of knowledge a candidate has is very important in hiring decisions.”

Where are students turning to bridge the gap? More and more, online. Online courses and certifications offer students the chance to efficiently and effectively replace some or all of their brick and mortar “hours in the seat” with competency-based learning that appeals to employers. More than half of all employers (54% per Lumina) now report the likelihood of hiring “a candidate who has a degree from an online higher education provider OVER a candidate with the same degree from a traditional higher education institution.”

No doubt, the higher education experience offers more than just access to the workplace: a protected step away from the family home, illuminating interaction with peers and mentors, acquisition of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, well-rounding as a human being. For far too many, however, the price of that education exceeds the ability to pay. The all too common failure of that education as career preparation just adds injury to injury.

For reasons of content and cost, higher education finds itself poised on the cusp of major change. Not all that many tomorrow’s from now, someone out there is about to become the last one to pay a quarter of a million dollars for yesterday’s higher education.