Thursday, October 21, 2010

Get Rid of Graduates

I was on campus at the end of the Summer, having a coffee with the twins, then 17 months. It was autumn graduation season, and everybody's big day out. With bad haircuts and short skirts, respectively, the sons and daughters of the land were lining up in pride, and rather old and tired looking parents looked on. In 2031, I said to the twins, that will be you. They declined to comment.

Or will it? Isn't graduation silly?

I've said before that you can see your graduates as customers, or products. Now, if you see them as products, you have other issues to address as I've mentioned before. If you see them as customers, think a little about how you manage them.

So you have your customers on site for three or four years. They build this deep relationship with you as an educational provider. They meet all their friends on your campus, have some of their best and worst moments there. They lose things like innocence and virginity. They gain things like spouses and debt that they will carry with them for many years. You've built a deep institutional and personal connection with them.

Then, one day, everyone comes by for some medieval dress up, you give them a scroll in latin, and send them off. Goodbye. Have a nice life. You'll send them a graduates association magazine a couple of times a year, and their mammies will read it, if you're lucky.

Can you imagine if your favourite coffeeshop, where you've gone for years, turned you away from the counter one morning. I'm sorry, time to move on. We've sold you enough coffee. We need to make way for new customers.

The analogy is imperfect, of course, but marketers tells us it much cheaper to keep a customer than to win a new one. Shouldn't you be trying to hang on to your students, not booting them out the door with great ceremony?

The trouble is, of course, the money. By the time they graduate, they probably don't have any left, and won't have for some years. Then ten or twenty years down the line when they've made good your University foundation will phone them up and ask them for some. Is it any wonder they don't get too good a response?

The idea of University education with fixed start and end points made heaps of sense in Bologna in 1155. Students started when they showed up in town, finished when they left town. It doesn't make so much sense any more. The world is a village, and there's no way out. After they 'graduate' when they are starting new careers is just about the time when they might need you the most, leveraging networks to get jobs, needing 'just in time' learning and mentoring to fill in gaps and help them get established in their careers. Why cut them loose just then?

I don't have a ready to roll alternative model (not yet...) but isn't time to ditch the binary idea of student vs. non student and stop labelling people as 'graduates' as if declaring them to be a finished work. Isn't there a smarter way? Why should our formal learning suddenly stop in our early twenties? Google famously sets aside a percentage of it's staff time for great projects. In our so called knowledge economy, can't we set a target of everyone spending 10% of their time for formal accredited learning? It sounds like a high ideal, but let's be mercenary about it. If we all go to a Browne style model of student loans with repayments keyed to income, won't real formal lifelong learning support our former graduates in their early careers and yield an excellent return on investment?

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