Recent Read: “College is a Racket”

The March 25th issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek had an interesting profile of Rebecca Kantar, the founder of startup Imbellus and a crusader to change the way educational systems measure potential and performance. A Harvard dropout, Kanter is convinced that today’s SAT and SCT regimens are deeply flawed, poor predictors of college performance and that higher-ed itself needs to be overhauled completely.

Kantar is 100% right. In fact, though often touted as the great social equalizer, elite higher ed actually does more to perpetuate social inequality than to reduce it. As the article notes:

The benefits of all that education, however, are highly uneven. The campuses of elite colleges remain disproportionately populated by the rich. At selective universities—ones that admit fewer than half of applicants—3 out of 4 students come from the richest quartile of families. According to Opportunity Insights, a research group led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, children from families in the top 1 percent of income distribution are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy-plus school—Ivy League plus Duke, MIT, Stanford, and the University of Chicago—than those from the bottom 20 percent…

Getting a college degree has long been integral to the mythic promise of American opportunity. Yet for millions, it’s become exactly that, a myth—and a very expensive myth at that. The average student leaves school carrying $30,000 in debt. More than 40 percent of students who enter college fail to earn a degree within six years, and many of them wind up in the workforce lacking the credentials and practical skills required to get ahead. The U.S. system of higher education isn’t the main source of economic inequality in America. But it’s almost certainly making things worse.

Kantar’s first gripe is with standardized college entrance exams, and she is convinced that the digital, experiential environment Imbellus is creating is a much better way to assess applicants. Her company’s tests are designed to assess process and cognitive ability more than a specific body of knowledge:

Imbellus’s software captures and analyzes every keystroke a player makes while going through the simulation, to arrive at both a “product score” and a “process score,” which Imbellus generates within two hours of the game’s completion. Erica Snow, the head cognitive scientist, says, “We’re not just interested in whether you got it right in the end. Cognition is dynamic—so we’re also incredibly interested in how you got there. The goal is not the same as in scoring a multiple-choice test. We want to know: How did you make the choices you made? When you made errors, how did you correct them?”

Kantar is quick to note in the piece that she does not think mastering bodies of knowledge is not necessary. Her position is that this should not be the main determinant of whether someone is fit for higher education. She sees her company’s mission as a long-term one, which may take decades to complete, given the slow ways in which higher education evolves. But she is in it for the long, she points out:

“I just want people to know that we won’t stop. At some point, it’s going to work, whether it takes 5 years, or 20 years, or 50 years and whether it means doing it alone or doing it with others. I’m really pretty sure that my initial mission and research was right—that this testing has to change to see the rest of the dominoes fall.”

While I do not know anything about Imbellus or the science behind its testing model, I agree completely that today’s testing and admission system, even before the latest round of scandals, is antiquated and ill-suited to the demands of future work and future workforces. Kantar is right that standardized tests are the past and experiential testing is the future.I know of more than one company (startups and large ones) that don’t even look at CVs when screening candidates, prefering to have them complete online assessments or projects to judge suitability for hire (much like Kantar’s model).

I have written elsewhere that the three pillars of higher education (knowledge transfer, campus life, and accreditation) must and will be unbundled in the future. Kantar and her company are not alone in agreeing with me, and we will in the coming decade see other startups begin to challenge the antiquated belief that accreditation for white collar jobs can only come from colleges and university-linked business schools. Indeed, in my vision of the future students live in neutral campus settings, take classes from multiple schools digitally, and finally complete exams that accredit their completion of a course of study. Whether that testing is done by Imbellus or a future of version of her company is impossible to predict specifically but entirely predictable generally.

All of the above is bad news only for higher ed institutions that don’t evolve to meet the changing nature of society and its required workforces. This article and Kantar’s company, and in some ways my own startup itself, are challenging the educational status-quo. The good news is that we are just the tip of the spear.

Read this article on LinkedIn.

Carlos Alvarenga

Founder and CEO at KatalystNet and Adjunct Professor in the Logistics, Business and Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Smith School of Business.

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