I went to college. In fact, I earned a Master’s degree in literature and taught writing courses for five years. I espoused the ideals of Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind and the value of a classic education. And yet today I rarely use the advanced literary skills I acquired in college, though I continue to read and write voraciously. Sometimes I find it difficult to quantify how my hard-earned degrees actually help pay the rent. Sure, I can tell a good story now and again, and I do find some odd comfort in the popular mantra that the MFA is the new MBA, but what I now recognize—and what many others have come to recognize also—is that traditional college education is no longer the metaphoric ticket to success.
For a unique class of visionaries, the traditional four-year degree plan is actually a hindrance. Innovators, entrepreneurs and inventors—the pioneers of social and business reformation—often grow impatient with college curriculum, which frequently lags behind their aspirations. I had the pleasure of meeting several of these “free thinkers” at the #ShiftNYC conference, individuals whose passion for learning and personal achievement surpassed that of any of my university students. Truly, the #ShiftNYC conference felt much like the Socratic ideal, a forum in which dialog is affirmed and nurtured and the ground between student and teacher is leveled.
Universities struggle to keep up with today’s rapid and widespread technological, economic and commercial changes; students simply struggle to keep up with tuition costs. One of the most profound ideological shifts our society is experiencing—but only just beginning to understand—is that a college degree no longer guarantees a middle-class lfestyle. This long-held formula for success, once promised by our parents and reinforced by traditional business rhetoric, now demands an overhaul.
Enter hybrid educational environments. Progressive education models offering master coursework, such as HyperIsland and Miami Ad School, provide entrepreneurial thinkers flexible programs that incorporate real-world experience and are designed according to industry needs. Alternative institutions—like the free-thinkers they attract—align themselves with the trends, practical needs and creative opportunities of these revolutionary times. While traditional education continues to produce degree-clutching job seekers, hybrid schools nurture entrepreneurs who seek new horizons.
Fundamental to these new schools of thought is that there are actually two job markets. The first is the commonly recognized popular market, which provides access to a scant 20 percent of available job positions that can be applied for by simply emailing or uploading one’s résumé. However, there is also an informal market, one that depends largely on word of mouth: positions are filled by tapping into a network of professional acquaintances and references. In this model, academic requirements are secondary to real-world experience, social chemistry and personal recommendations. Classroom skills may indeed benefit a job-seeker in a formal market, but for an estimated 80 percent of the job openings today, employers seek candidates with well-crafted social skills, practical abilities and a robust network of resources.
What marks the difference between students who passively absorb four years of traditional college theory and those who strike out on their own unique path to success? Why do the risk-takers among us join the ranks of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in search of success while the majority of job-seekers continue to participate in an educational system that neglects the practical needs of its students and a devolving income cycle that breeds fear and conformity? By sidestepping the rising cost of tuition and aggressive student loan debt, entrepreneurs can repurpose their talent and money more advantageously by investing in a start-up business. Additionally, innovative companies like Imagine Games Network (ING) vet job applicants by their skilled passion for technology and computing, not their university credentials. Arguing that software and app coding is a contemporary craft and can be self-taught more readily than learned in a college classroom, Roy Bahat, IGN’s president, represents the new breed of technology leaders who are redefining how the industry approaches applicant qualifications and staffing.
So what defines a new hire in today’s changing market or explains the new generation of entrepreneurs who are striking out on their own? The practical skills sought by modern industries cannot be taught in traditional classrooms or vapid theories; they evolve from an innate spirit of independence, curiosity and inner vision. While attending the #ShiftNYC event this September, I met just such an entrepreneur who recommended that I read Erik Calonius’s Ten Steps Ahead, which distinguishes successful business visionaries from “the rest of us.” As I read Calonius’ text, I realized that—whether one attends college, graduates or drops out—certain qualities innate to the human heart give rise to instinct, courage and drive that transcend the norm. Our inner passions compel us to cultivate new experiences, and this desire fuels our desire to build new worlds—whether in the realm of business, technology, art or worlds yet discovered. No longer is success dependent on what you learn or where you learn it; true success is the byproduct of self-awareness, adaptability and the acquisition of relevant knowledge and skills.