My Interview on the Education Trends Podcast

I recently spoke with the team at the Education Trends podcast about my book, Rethink the MBA, as well as the topics I’ve written about at Meritmark, including: higher education’s competitive moat, the achilles heel of higher education, and the dawn of transparent education.

I encourage you to download the latest episode and give it a listen. You can find the Education Trends podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or Spotify. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

Thanks for listening (and reading), and I’ll be back next week with more articles on the future of work and higher education.

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Majors and Minors

Here’s a simple idea for Colleges and Universities to dramatically lower the time and cost of education for every student, virtually overnight.

This same idea can also be used by code academies to effortlessly brand their educational offering in the minds of students, parents, and employers (without ever having to use the words “nano”, “badge”, or “certificate”).

Create degrees that are only Majors or Minors.

Bachelor’s degrees are a bundle of classes relevant to employment and enrichment. The Major includes all the classes that make a student employable, while General Education includes the classes that provide personal enrichment in art, literature, and science.

While it’s important to learn for the sake of personal enrichment, it’s strange that it is necessary in order to receive a Bachelor’s degree. And yet, General Education is required before you can take classes in your Major and in order to get a college degree.

Looking back at my own college career, I obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Economics comprised of 134 credit units. Here are the actual courses I took that were part of my General Education requirements.

  • The Modern Novel (3 cu)
  • Ancient Philosophy (3 cu)
  • Intro to Physics (3 cu)
  • Evolution of Jazz (3 cu)
  • Badminton (3 cu)
  • Tennis (3 cu)
  • Intro to Human Sexuality (1 cu)
  • French Language, Literature, and History (15 cu)
  • Intro to the Environmental Studies (3 cu)

All in all, you have 37 credits (~2 full college semesters), spent on courses that were enriching, but unnecessary to my future career in business.

Instead of requiring these General Education classes, we should give students the option to simply get a Major or a Minor Degree in the topic of their choice. By taking the Major or Minor and turning it into a stand-alone degree, colleges can dramatically reduce the time and cost for students to learn employable skills in school.

This change requires literally no changes to curriculum, course lists, teachers, or textbooks. It is already an integral part of higher education. Students would still have the choice to get a Bachelor’s Degree or a Major Degree; an Associate’s Degree or a Minor Degree. For their part, employers could also choose which degree to use as a filter for selecting candidates for higher level jobs.

Coda for Code Academies

The “completion certificates” that are being offering by code academies for software engineering programs do not have a phrase that effectively competes in the minds of employers with the phrase “Bachelor’s Degree”. Using the existing language of Major and Minor solves this problem.

Everyone who has gone to college has Majored or Minored in one or more subjects, and understands the implication that a discrete set of material has been mastered by the student. Code academies already put students through a given number of instructional hours. These can simply be added up and converted to the “credit hours” required to Major or Minor in a subject.

So, rather than create new names for these programs, let’s just start calling them Majors and Minors!

It is a waste of time and money to build brand for new phrases like “micro”, “nano”, “pico” degrees or “certificates”, “awards” or “badges”. If code academies simply called certificates a Major or a Minor, it would enable them to piggyback off of the words inside the mind of every college graduate and more precisely convey the level of education their students are receiving in the program.

Even better, it frames the code academy certificate against the status quo in the minds of students, who can now start to make an apples to apples comparison of the cost of getting a Major in X via a Bachelor’s degree, or a Major in X through a code academy.

Finally, it makes it extremely difficult for traditional colleges and universities to downplay the quality of a code academy program. If we use the existing language of higher education and say that a program is equivalent to a Major, it will be incumbent on traditional colleges to try and parse out the functional difference between a Major in X and a Bachelor’s Degree with a Major in X in the real world.

Ultimately, creating two new degrees will provide students in traditional education with more choices, and finally provide a way for code academies to summarize their offerings without having to coin a new word or phrase.

An Open Letter to Dr. Jordan Peterson from an MBA Entrepreneur

Dear Dr. Peterson:

My name is Micah Merrick. I graduated in 2009 from the Wharton School of Business with an MBA in Entrepreneurial Management. I went on a failed startup adventure in the year following my graduation and wrote a free book based on my experiences called Rethink the MBA

I am writing to ask you to reconsider the nature of your recent partnership with the Acton School of Business, or any school of business, that sells MBA degrees to aspiring entrepreneurs. 

No Axes Here

I have read your book, 12 Rules for Life, and listened to many of your online lectures with interest. I am not penning this letter with an axe to grind. Others can judge for themselves, but what I’ve heard on podcasts with Joe Rogan or Dave Rubin is the voice of someone genuinely trying to help the world, one person at a time. 

Furthermore, I’ve followed with interest your stated intention to start a new venture in the education space. There are many problems with The Academy, as you well know, and funding from Peter Thiel (buddy of your fellow traveler, Eric Weinstein) to support a new educational venture seems like a match made in heaven. I remain hopeful that this new venture continues apace.

The MBA Steel Man

First, let me offer a “steel man”, which supports your decision to create an MBA fellowship with Acton in the first place.

Unlike many higher education credentials, MBA degrees, especially from top-ranked schools, continue to earn graduates high salary premiums in exchange for 1-2 years of time and money. The quality of instruction is typically high. Many instructors come directly from industry with little patience for business theories that have not survived in the “real world”. Finally, the MBA experience itself can be deeply rewarding on a personal level, allowing students to connect with talented peers, and spend time in active personal reflection. 

Furthermore, the Acton MBA, were it aspiring to serve traditional, career-oriented students, offers more value than a traditional MBA. It is shorter, less expensive, combines online and in-person learning, and uses teaching methodologies such as the famous Harvard Business School Socratic Method. These are important improvements upon the traditional MBA, and Acton has a lot to be proud of with regards to its academic innovations. 

The Critical Caveat

Unfortunately, Acton is not trying to serve traditional MBA students pursuing careers in management consulting, banking, or technology. They are trying to serve aspiring entrepreneurs. This is a critical, even fatal, caveat to the steel man above. I know, from first principles and first-hand experience, that aspiring entrepreneurs are the wrong students for an Acton MBA, or any MBA at all. Here’s why:

Human beings with the courage, drive, and risk tolerance to attempt to start their own business are rare. On the other hand, entrepreneurs create massive economic wealth for the societies where they live when they are successful.

Unfortunately, entrepreneurs are statistically headed for failure, and it’s the fate of these failed entrepreneurs, and a society’s ability to “recycle” their talents, which determines whether you wind up as Silicon Valley, or not. If failure is not a fatal blow, or even celebrated, you get the former. If it is financially debilitating or stigmatized, you get something…well, not good.  

This means that from statistical first principles, we must judge any form of entrepreneurial education by how it handles the students who “fail” to start a new business, and not fall for the trap of merely judging a program by the “successes”. 

So, let’s do this, by comparing Acton against the undisputed benchmark for entrepreneurial education, Y Combinator in Silicon Valley. We’ll do this exercise, not by comparing the fate of the winners, but comparing the fate of the losers:

Acton MBAY Combinator
Time9 Months3 Months
$ Earned$0Living expenses paid by salary
$ Cost$65,000$0
Equity Cost0% of Company7% of Company for $150k
Cost of Failure9 months and $65,0003 Months and $0

Clearly, despite its innovative approach, Acton, not to mention every other “entrepreneurial” MBA offering, is far more expensive for failed entrepreneurs than the best alternative. This expense prevents failed entrepreneurs from being “recycled” in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Rather than trying again to start a new, potentially successful company, they are stuck pursuing traditional employment in order to pay back their student loans. 

It Gets Worse…

There are myriad additional problems to consider:

  • Adverse Selection: The best aspiring entrepreneurs are busy starting companies, not trying to get a credential called an MBA. Hence, Acton will adversely select for students more likely to fail, exacerbating the moral dilemma I outline above. 
  • Skin In The Game: Entrepreneurial MBA programs have no financial alignment with their student’s success. This lack of Nassim Talebian “skin in the game” presents an intractable conflict of interest. 
  •  Entrepreneurial Knowledge is a Commodity: Like all other forms of knowledge, entrepreneurial knowledge is a near commodity available in books, websites, and podcasts from the best practitioners, like Paul Graham, Naval Ravikant, and Marc Andreessen. Charging more than a hardcover book for this content, let alone $65,000, is unjustified. (I am not talking about customized advice from these actual practitioners! Paying PG, Naval, or Marc $65,000 for their startup advice would be a bargain.)

One Path to Redemption

In order for Acton, or any other MBA program to align with failed entrepreneurs, they must solve the problems above. They are not intractable, as Y Combinator, TechStars, and 500 Startups have all shown. However, redemption comes at the cost of a completely different business model: allowing students to pay with equity in their venture rather than with cash, financed by student loans. 

If Acton, or any other MBA program, is truly adding value to the education of an aspiring entrepreneur, then the value of their equity portfolio will be on a par with a successful venture capital investor. I would support any MBA program taking this approach 100%. 

However, if an business school recruiting aspiring entrepreneurs is not willing to be paid in equity, then they are unfortunately just virtue signaling about “helping entrepreneurs”, while harming those entrepreneurs that will inevitably fail in the future.  

Ultimately, there is a solution to this conundrum for you personally. By all means, continue to work with Acton, Founders Institute, or any other entrepreneurial program to integrate your suite of psychological tests and writing exercises. Every student can benefit from this form of self-reflection.

On the other hand, please do not actively encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to pursue an MBA. It is simply a form of educational “help” that does more harm than good. 

Warm Regards,

Micah Merrick

One Thing

Tyler Cowen, economist and author of Stubborn Attachments, argues that “sustainable economic growth” is the one thing we should focus on in our societies to achieve maximum human well-being.

On Wall Street, companies are measured quarterly by one thing: Earnings Per Share, which serves as a proxy for overall financial health. 

While he was the CEO of Paypal, Peter Thiel would only speak to employees about the one thing most critical for them to accomplish.   

Of course, economies, companies, and people are more complex than one thing. However, the success of each complex system may be maximally enhanced by focusing on one thing, and one thing alone. 

This raises an intriguing idea: in every complex domain of human activity, is there one thing we could focus on that would yield maximum success? 

In higher education, I believe the answer is yes. 

Follow the Money

To find it, we have to uncover the primary role that higher education plays in American society. Of course, we’re going to completely ignore mission statements, mottos, and other forms of university “cheap tawk“. We’ll just follow the money, which, according to The National Center for Education Statistics, goes here: 

  • Research: ~$40 billion
  • Other Stuff (Radio Stations, Sports Facilities, etc.): ~$40 billion
  • Hospitals:  ~$50 billion
  • Students: ~$192 billion

As we would suspect, higher ed has an important role to play in basic scientific research, training doctors and nurses, and developing future NPR correspondents and NFL athletes. However, if you follow the money, the primary “job” of higher education is teaching students. 

So, why do students go to college?

Since 1973, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has been surveying millions of incoming college freshmen. Unlike most surveys, this one is not “cheap tawk” because the respondents are enrolled students putting their money (and OK, their parents money also) where their mouth is. 

The most recent survey shows that the #1 reason students go to college is to “get a better job” (85% of students say this reason is “very important”). Unsurprisingly, in 2nd place comes “learning more about things that interest me” (84% of students say this is “very important”). Finally, a majority of students say that “making more money” really matters (73% say this reason is “very important”). 

Follow the money. 

Higher education primarily serves students. Students pursue a higher education because they want to get a well paying job that overlaps with their personal interests.  

It Sounds So Simple…

Today, students have only one way to try and quickly and easily identify a school to meet their goals: school rankings. Several prominent news organizations, such as U.S News and World Report, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal, rank colleges and universities to try and simplify the selection process. Unfortunately, the school ranking system is broken and confusing. For example:

  • Which ranking is the “best” or the most “trustworthy”?
  • How do you compare rankings from different sources?
    • For example, my alma mater, Penn State University, is ranked 59th, 121st, and 125th respectively according to the sources above. That’s over 60 rankings different between U.S. News and the WSJ.
  • Why do factors used in these ranking such as “alumni giving” or “financial resources” matter to students?
  • What if a student is interested in attending the best program, not the best school?
    • For example, a student might be interested in the best computer science program. Unfortunately, you can’t find a comprehensive ranking of these specific programs.

Outside of rankings, students (and parents) are left with anecdotes, marketing brochures, and “advice” from friends and family based on their own biases or favorite college football team.

Today, it seems that there is no solution to help students understand where they can obtain a cost-effective education to get a better paying job.

But, that doesn’t mean a solution doesn’t exist…

Common Sense

The solution is common sense.

Students say they want a “better job” and want to “make more money”. So, a student’s starting salary after graduation is probably very important! For example, if a student studies computer science at Penn State and makes $50,000 when they graduate, that is probably better than studying at Ohio State and making $40,000. Common sense. 

If students want to “make more money”, then it’s also true that they need to spend less money in the first place. For example, paying $100,000 for a bachelor’s degree at Penn State is better than paying $125,000 for the same degree at Ohio State. Common sense. 

Finally, the more money a student can make over time, the better off they will be. For example, spending 4 years getting a bachelor’s degree at Penn State is better than spending 5 years at Ohio State, because it maximizes a students lifetime earnings. Common sense. 

Higher Ed’s “One Thing”

By using common sense, we know we can help students the most by telling them three simple things: their likely starting salary after graduation, the cost of school, and the time they’ll spend in school. For any school or program, if we take these three data points, we can estimate their earnings over time. 

So, why don’t we? 

Let’s borrow from Wall Street, and put a new “S” in Earnings Per Share:

Earnings Per Student.

Let’s define Earnings Per Student as the amount of money a student can make in a 10-year period, starting with their first day of school, minus their tuition, and using only their salary within 6 months after graduation for the remaining years. 

For example, if a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Penn State takes 4 years to obtain, costs $100,000 in tuition, and has an average graduate starting salary of $50,000, then the EPS for this program is:

  • 6 years x $50,000 – $100,000 = $200,000

We could also calculate the average Earnings Per Student for the entire school by taking the weighted average of students in different programs. For example, if the EPS for computer science majors was $200,000, for English majors $150,000, and there were 10 students in each major, the EPS for Penn State would be $175,000. 

Of course, EPS is not meant to be a precise estimate of the actual earnings of a student over a 10 year period. The purpose of EPS is to provide a directionally accurate means of comparing schools and programs. 

It’s directionally accurate to say that a student’s salary at graduation indicates the degree to which employers value the knowledge, skills, and tools a student has learned, as well as the market signal of their intelligence that comes with the degree itself.

It’s a truism to say that the less time in school, the better for the student: they will have more time to earn money! Of course, this assumes that the EPS doesn’t change when you shorten the program length. This provides an interesting opportunity for schools to experiment with the tradeoff between program length and quality, in order to optimize the starting salary of a student. 

Finally, it’s also a truism that the lower the cost of education, the more of a student’s 10 year earnings will be available for themselves and their families. 

Earnings Per Student is the “one thing”.

Coda

We’ve seen that EPS would help students obtain their most important goal: a better, higher paying job. But, there are additional benefits we would foster by focusing on EPS:

  • Shorter educational programs
  • Career paths instead of “majors” (think Software Engineering or Web Marketing vs. “Computer Science” or “Business”)
  • Less expensive educational programs
  • Career services to ensure that the maximum number of students find high paying jobs shortly after college (if a student doesn’t have a job in 6 months, that’s $0 EPS). 
  • Early detection of low-value educational programs that waste student’s time and money. 

It’s possible to think of many ways to make Earnings per Student more sophisticated or accurate. However, if we are trying to help students achieve what they say they want to achieve, there may be no “one thing” better to measure and improve than EPS.

If you can think of one, let me know…