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What is the real value of higher education? That’s the question asked by a thoughtful article by John Cassidy in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Cassidy notes that for decades, politicians have focused on higher education as a near-guarantee to a good job and a growing salary. In today’s economy, however, the picture is more nuanced and less rosy. College, once tasked primarily with creating well-rounded citizens, has had an awkward transition to a world with global competition where employers often care more about specific skills than general cultivation. As we rethink education for the next century, two thoughts come to mind: first, we could do a better job teasing apart general education from skills-based education, and second, skills education needs to have a strong focus on outcomes (and the accurate reporting of them). Outcomes, a central focus of Hack Reactor’s educational model, will help students, parents and employers understand what they are paying for and why.
“If getting a bachelor’s degree is meant to guarantee entry to an arena in which jobs are plentiful and wages rise steadily, the education system has been failing for some time,” Cassidy concludes from the education outcome numbers (readers are encouraged to read his entire piece). In short, college degrees still have value, but much of this is as a filtering device for employers, who, with many candidates to choose from will often ignore non-graduates, regardless of the skills the job requires.
Hack Reactor’s approach is the exact opposite: we do not provide certification of any kind, just a highly refined three-month, 66-hour per week immersive program geared toward setting our students up for successful careers as Software Engineers.
The other piece of the puzzle is that “college” is far too broad a term for any careful analysis. Lumping top-tier universities, state colleges and vocational schools into one category hides a wide range of outcomes. Quoting from Professor Peter Cappelli’s book Will College Pay Off? Cassidy looks under the hood of college student outcomes:
“‘The big news about the payoff from college should be the incredible variation in it across colleges,’ Cappelli writes. ‘Looking at the actual return on the costs of attending college, careful analyses suggest that the payoff from many college programs—as much as one in four—is actually negative. Incredibly, the schools seem to add nothing to the market value of the students.’”
Here, we might find ourselves asking a more basic question: what is higher education for? The standard answer is some combination of general education and marketable skills--most non-vocational colleges try to balance the two. However, it’s hard to avoid the fact that, in their attempt to do both, most colleges are not particularly efficient at either. The four-year model was built around a different economy and a more upper-class population. While on-the-job training was once an assumed cost of bringing on employees, today, many employers look for workers who can contribute on day one.
“‘What employers want from college graduates now is the same thing they want from applicants who have been out of school for years, and that is job skills and the ability to contribute now,’ Cappelli writes. ‘That change is fundamental, and it is the reason that getting a good job out of college is now such a challenge.’”
Given this, it is clear that any school claiming to improve a student’s career prospects in specific fields needs to provide skills closely aligned with industry needs, while simultaneously providing a broad enough base to allow for a shifting market. No one is saying this is easy. Hack Reactor addresses this challenge by using market-relevant technologies to teach students how to learn. In the project period of the course, students routinely use skills gained in the first half of the program to teach themselves new technologies. This approach ensures that every student leaves with a strong set of fundamentals and the ability to quickly add to their skill set. The success of this approach is borne out in our outcomes: 99% of students are hired within three months of graduation at an average starting salary of $105,000.
Our students primarily want career skills that make them immediately more valuable to the software engineering market. Our focus on the metrics that matter to our students, both salary outcomes and internal indicators, has helped us tailor our program to the market and our customers. We don’t claim to offer a liberal arts education, just a highly refined program focused on specific skills--the most basic of which is learning how to learn. Do other programs know what they are offering and why, or are they largely going through the motions dictated by yesterday’s educational model? Every school, and their potential students, ought to be asking this question.