College: Do you really need a ticket to ride any more?

By Lawrence Henry
web posted November 1, 1999

I gave my best, up-to-date version of college advice to one of our babysitters the other day. "Kristin," I said, "apply to some big Southern school where it's warm and you can have fun. Then, when you're a junior or a senior, you can figure out what you want to do."

I speak as a veteran of an Ivy League college and a National Merit Scholarship. I speak as a college dropout. I speak as a writer who published a book when he was 21. But, most of all, I speak from clear observation: College really doesn't mean that much any more. In this, as in so many other things in American society and business today, high technology companies - and now, especially, Internet companies - lead the way.

Let's look at several trends:

1. Back in the mid-sixties, it seemed obvious that the U.S. was headed toward a 30-hour work week. The phrase "nine to five" still described the average work day. Unions spoke for a substantial portion of the private sector work force. Within 15 years, high technology companies like Intel, AMD, Texas Instruments, and Hewlett-Packard had made "nine to five" a joke, and hungry startup companies in computer-related fields were already staffed by hard-working nerds who programmed through the night. Private sector union membership had been cut in half by the new technologies.

2. In the 1960s, if you worked in an office, you wore a jacket and tie, if you were a man, and a dress or a skirt and blouse or a suit, if you were a woman. By the 1980s, "casual Friday" had sprawled over much of the work week. Just a few years ago, I called on a mutual fund company in Florida, and found that only my principal contact, the vice president of marketing, wore a tie. Every staffer - including the marketing manager, the analysts, the director of compliance, and the senior legal aide - wore casual clothes. Not J. Crew casual, either: baggy-knees cords and wrinkled shirts. (And it wasn't Friday.)

3. In the sixties, fewer people attended college than attended high school. (Naturally.) Today, there are more people in college than in all the levels of primary education. If higher education were a stock issue, you'd call that trend "dilution."

4. Technological progress regularly and rapidly has outpaced every other social trend: law, regulation, treaties, and elections. Best example: The Microsoft anti-trust case, where the technological market has now moved so fast that the suit isn't even relevant any more (if it ever was). Only money can keep up with technology. Education certainly can't.

What do these trends mean? First, people work harder than ever before, and hard work has become the defining characteristic of success. Not education, not status, not privilege, not looks - just hard work. Second, the casual Friday spillover into every-day-of-the-week workplace  slobbery signifies that the values of the young have taken over work in general.  Younger workers today don't even know they look sloppy. And they don't see sloppy appearance in others, either. Why should they? It doesn't matter. (See "working harder," above.) Third, with college degrees flying left and right, degrees don't have much value - outside highly technical specialties in math, physics, engineering, and the like. And even engineers acknowledge that they do all their real learning on the job. Fourth, there's no way any ossified educational institution (and they're all ossified, to one degree or another) can possibly train people for the new technology and the new economy. Only Human Resources departments believe in credentialed education any more. And we all know what most productive people think of Human Resources departments.

New companies have been way ahead of every measured curve on hiring women, minorities, the young, the old, the foreign, the odd and the unusual. And - most important - new companies have been completely outside the conventional curve in hiring people who have taught themselves their job skills, or have learned them on some other job.

My wife likes to point out that certain college degrees, those from Harvard and Yale and such, amount to a kind of "ticket" to higher status. That's true. But how many companies have hired Harvard MBAs, only to find that those high-ticket types don't really know what to do? And that you have to train them anyway?

In a rich economy, companies can afford to have snootily credentialed know-nothings on the payroll. In a market downturn - and one will eventually come - those glossy college tickets will come to mean less and less.

The new companies and the new technology ultimately ask every prospect: "What can you do?" If all you can do is point to your degree, you won't get in the front door.

Eventually, the new company culture will take over the old. Just wait until the day - and it'll come - that some cash-rich former Internet startup decides to buy Ford. Or Fleet. Or Salomon Brothers. We're close - very close.

Lawrence Henry is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right.

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