Kevin: Value often lies in the eye of the beholder. What I find useful could be quite different from what you hold dear. As a society, we're used to following a linear career path that begins with a college degree, but in the words of Bob Dylan, "The times, they are a changing."
I can't quite put my finger on it, but it feels like we are all on an elevator stuck between floors, with views into our past, present, and future. I want to know more. I want to investigate if the perceptions of work have changed in this country. I want to better understand who or what needs to get an overhaul so that we can more accurately communicate both the what and the why of the jobs we think we want. I want to understand how we can empower individuals to take control of their career path. This is what I want to know.
In this episode, I'm happy to be joined by educator, businessman, and speaker Stedman Graham, as well as bestselling author and higher education expert Jeff Selingo. Stedman Graham was born on the Jersey Shore. Steadman is chairman and CEO of S. Graham & Associates, which specializes in the corporate consulting and educational fields. A prolific writer, he's authored 10 books, including 2 New York Times Best Sellers. Graham has also taught at several colleges and universities. Welcome to the show, my good friend, Stedman Graham
Stedman: Well, Kevin, I'm so glad to be here. Glad to see you. We've been friends for a long time, and it's a pleasure to be on your podcast.
Kevin: We bonded because you've always been a cause guy. I mean, you were counseling prisoners, you got in education. Where did that come from? Was that just something you always had?
Stedman: Yeah, I grew up in a place called Whitesboro, New Jersey, all-black town surrounded by white county where they said nothing ever comes out of Whitesboro. And then, we had a lot of the good that came out of Whitesboro. I grew up during segregation and I grew up where we created our own. I was just taught to be able to give back. That's part of how we prepare our youth for the future is that we're responsible for them.
Kevin: And you've been taught that, that's ingrained in you is obvious, but you always push yourself to go to the next level. And we connected not just through basketball, but many years later, around the power and promise of education. Why did you land on education as your advocation?
Stedman: I didn't know the value of education. I mean, I've written...I'm an author. I've written 12 books. I read one book in high school. When I discovered education and I'm with a woman, Oprah, most people know, who is big on education and also big on reading, and I didn't really understand the value of learning and knowledge and information. And I didn't really understand the value of how to apply that to my own personal professional development. So the transformation and the journey has been to be able to understand the value of information and education and how to apply it to your skills, your talents, to your abilities, to what you love so you can create your own happiness and create your own life.
Kevin: Let's talk about identity because I think that's the missing piece in most school curriculum. I think it's a missing piece in terms of preparing kids for the future. How did you latch on to identity as a platform, which, now, you spread around the country?
Stedman: You know, you're stuck in a world where you can't define yourself, the world defines you by your race, and it defines you by your gender and your house and your car, your money, and your ability to define yourself is almost impossible. You've got 8 billion people out there, pretty much all followers. If we just rely on the traditional educational system, that sometimes just teaches us how to memorize and take tests, repeat information back, you're labeled with the grade, two weeks later, we forget the information, we're not going to be able to become self-directed learners, or, I should say, be relevant. So if you don't customize your own program around who you are, based on your natural talents and abilities or your identity, you're out.
Kevin: Yeah. And you know what's interesting, I've seen you... What you talk about is received so well by students. Students, you can see the sense of empowerment they have. One thing you say, I think you characterize it, "You are not your circumstances. You're your possibilities." And you can see the light bulb go on. And when you talk about skill development, in this new age of cyberbullying and people being cast in certain boxes, for a lot of young people, they can't get past that initial step of negativity and self-doubt because they don't understand that they're not their circumstances, but I've seen you break through that. So talk a little bit about how you connect with students and get them to view themselves differently.
Stedman: I think they get it because it's based on the most powerful word in the world, which is love. And so all of this is based on can you love yourself? Do you think well of yourself? Can you maintain a positive attitude? Can you organize everything that you love? It's based on understanding who you are. I mean, that's the piece. If you can get that, then you can overcome bullying. You can overcome the obstacles that you face every single day. You can deal with adversity. You understand the relevancy of information.
And Kevin, the most important thing is you're able to empower yourself. That's the missing piece for students. They can't really empower themselves because the information that they're getting and the content they're getting is not relevant to their self-empowerment. If you focus on not the external world, as a way to define your existence, but you work on the internal world, which is your heart, your soul, you get that right, transfer that to your minds, so you become a thinking human being, and then transfer that to the global marketplace and the greatest country in the world, which is America, so you can empower yourself, in the 24 hours that you have every single day which makes us all equal.
And it doesn't make any difference what color you are, what your background is, what country you're in. Because I do this in China. I work in the Netherlands and Europe and I train military. And the process is the same. This is what I've been looking for all of my life is to figure out how do I create equality in my own life, based on who I am so that I can co-create with the world and become a contributing member of society based on this great country that we live in.
Kevin: You've worked with kids intensely for over 20 years, going to these workshops. You talked about the most recent tour. You may get, you know, 500, you may get 20,000 high school students in a room. Haven't you noticed that the pressures on young people and the self-doubt has increased with the advent of technology?
Stedman: It's because you're using technology wrong. This tool right here is the greatest tool in the world. You can't get any better than this. But if you're not making this relevant to your development, you're feeding somebody else's program. You're in somebody else's program. You're not in your own program. Because they do not have the right information that focuses on self-actualization and self-development, they're not working on themselves. That's what I learned. Education is great. Fantastic, we gotta be educated. Working is great. We got to work. But if it's not tied to who we are today, we're going to be out of alignment.
Kevin: Stedman, you've always talked about the importance of vision and yet schools don't teach vision. How do students navigate around this issue and understand vision when it's not being taught?
Stedman: We should be able to organize this [inaudible 00:08:07], it starts with the schools. It starts with having a vision for the schools, and then having a vision for each student based on where you should be going, based on the process of success and what that process should look like. That's leadership. That's called leadership. So somehow, we're either not doing it because we don't want to do it, or it's political, right, or we are missing the boat here because we don't have the right information.
I'm just talking about an awareness, having some awareness of what's possible for us and, hopefully, having our educational system adopt additional programs that can supplement. We've got to have history. We got to have reading and writing. We got to have those subjects, and they do a great job of trying to give us that information there, but we need extra information now to become relevant to the 21st century.
Kevin: Not only do you advise students on these issues, you also advise and counsel corporate America, some of the largest corporations in the country. So you understand the intersection between education and corporate life. So the question I would pose to you, if you're talking to a young person who's preparing for college or career, how do they get themselves ready for that future world knowing that they may not get everything they need in terms of preparation and understanding self-identity from the school system?
Stedman: I'm trying to get people to be self-directed learners at every level, whether you're a CEO, you better be a self-directed learner, because you got to run a company. If you're an executive or manager, you better be a self-directed learner because you're dealing with employees. If you're an employee, nobody has time to deal with you on the job, so you better be a self-directed learner so you can keep your job and also be beneficial. That corporation and organization is only as good as those people. So you've got to constantly reinvent yourself.
That's the same message for students is that you've got to become a self-directed learner today. This is the information age. And the beautiful thing about it is we have access to a whole world of information and we have the ability to talk to people anywhere in the world, have conversations with them. And this pandemic, if it hasn't done anything, it's done a lot, it has certainly has put us all on the same page in terms of the value of technology and how we're going to communicate in the future based on information. And now, we have the hybrid model. Now, we can go out a little bit, but also, we can Zoom and still communicate.
Kevin: Self-directed learning is a concept that almost belies the history of traditional education, because you're herded into a classroom, you're segregated by age in terms of your grade levels, it's almost robotic and responsive. Like you said, you take a test, you do well on the test, you forget it. But this self-directed learning, it really speaks to this idea of understanding that education goes beyond the 9 to 3 in a brick-and-mortar classroom. It's about lifelong learning. And this is what I really want to know. How do we create a movement around self-directed learning?
Stedman: You know, I'm studying all of this. And, you know, you want to create systemic programs that you can put in the schools and curriculum and all of that, train the trainer and all of that, it's pretty much traditional. I think you have to create awareness around where we have to go as a country and as a global marketplace today on how education has to be put into a hybrid model where it's all different kinds of educational programs and processes that lend itself to human development. So there's business education. There's entrepreneurship education. There's STEM education. There's general education. There's math. There's science. There's technology. There's all kinds of educational information that's relevant to whatever our interest is.
It goes back to really getting folks to realize it's going to change. There's no question. This technology is going to allow people to start becoming more entrepreneurial and focusing on self-directed learning and lifelong learning and all of that because they're going to be forced to because they don't figure it out, the only way I can make any money is I got to take charge of my own development. I can no longer wait and afford to even go to college because college sets me back. Unless we start changing, the people will change because they have to, but it's a slow process.
It's easier if leadership recognizes before it happens and starts to create career path programs, career development programs, programs specifically designed around natural ability, organic development, identity, and all those things are really key words, we should be focused on that, as opposed to 10 years down the road, we're still doing the same way that we did it before, and it's not working.
Kevin: Stedman Graham, you're always dropping knowledge. You know, they say that the measure of a man is a commitment to consistent self-growth and the commitment to do better and be better. Nobody embodies that more than you, my friend. So I really appreciate you being on this show.
Stedman: Well, that's a high compliment coming from you, who, you know, one of our leaders and councilmen and government and all the works you should do in the schools and education and you travel around. You've done a tremendous job. You should be proud and I'm so proud to have you as a friend and to know you.
Kevin: Well, I look up to you. Thanks so much, Stedman. Thanks for joining us.
Stedman: My pleasure. Thank you.
Kevin: Jeff Selingo has been writing about higher education for more than two decades. And as the author of three New York Times Best Selling books, his latest book, "Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admission," was recently listed on the 100 Notable Books of 2020. He's a regular contributor to "The Atlantic" and is also a professor at Arizona State University. He is the editor of the "Chronicle of Higher Education," and co-hosts the podcast "FutureU." Without question, Jeff Selingo is among the nation's foremost thinkers about the future of higher education.
Well, Jeff, thank you so much for joining us. I'm so happy to have you on and a lot I want to talk to you about. But first and foremost, originally, you were a reporter. What drew you to higher education where, now, you're one of the country's renowned experts?
Jeff: Well, in some ways, it was by accident. I was a reporter for my student newspaper at Ithaca College as an undergraduate. I stayed in Ithaca for the last semester of college, where I worked for the local Gannett newspaper there. And then I kind of fell out of education reporting, but wanted to live and work in DC, where I had interned in college, at U.S. News & World Report. And there was an opening at a place called the "Chronicle of Higher Education," which still is the trade magazine for colleges and universities worldwide. There was an opening there. I thought I'd be there for a couple of years. And a couple of years turned into 16, and I eventually became the top editor there.
Kevin: And higher ed has gone through so many changes, like K through 12, but oftentimes, higher ed has been ignored with some of the strife going on in K through 12. What kind of changes have you seen in terms of the way higher ed is covered by peers and former peers?
Jeff: So I think, right now, higher ed is definitely covered much more as a consumer food. It used to be that we used to think of higher ed as a public good. It was covered as an emotional good for, you know, good old State U. You know, something that people loved. Of course, it was always in the sports pages as well. But increasingly, because of the increasing cost of college, questions about its value, is it delivering the jobs that people expect to get with a college degree? I think there's a lot of questions, particularly on the right, about whether students are being indoctrinated. In surveys by Gallup and Pew, both Republicans and Democrats are questioning higher education for different reasons. And as a result now, newspapers are covering it more as this kind of consumer good. What are you paying for? What are you getting out of it?
Kevin: Many people, because of the scrutiny on the cost of college and the loans and the debt, there's a question being raised, it's a big question, if you're a young person, does a college degree still matter?
Jeff: It's interesting, Kevin, my 11-year-old and 9-year-old, in the car on the way to school the other day, were asking these questions, right? What kind of jobs can you get by going to college? What kind of jobs can you get without going to college?
I think we've made a big mistake in this country by essentially having one pathway into the middle-class, which largely travels through a college of some kind. It's clear that in the 21st century, we need education and training after high school, but increasingly. too many people, I think, see that only as a four-year degree, in some cases. as a two-year degree. I don't think that we've set up enough pathways into what are good jobs that not only hire but give people a sustaining salary and career for the rest of their lives. And so it's kind of like four-year college or bust for too many students. A lot of students, of course, go to community colleges, but they're not given true transfer options or they earn a two-year degree that doesn't have enough currency in the job market and so it's worth as much as a high school diploma.
Kevin: Now, I know Europe is not a good data point or reference because there are so many differences in our cultures, but one of the big differences over there, compared to the States, is status and the stigma associated with being in traditional career pathways, as opposed to having a college degree. You don't have the same stigma or status over there, at least historically. How do we get around that?
Jeff: Well, I think we might actually get around it without even trying, because I think career pathways are changing, right? It's higher industries are expanding and others are contracting and disappearing. I mean, even look at my industry. When I went to college in 1991, graduated in 1995, a career in print journalism was still a thing. I mean, that's not a thing anymore, right? Obviously, journalism is still a career, but things like this, it didn't exist in 1995. So there are all these new ways of thinking about careers.
I think, Kevin, the biggest problem that I see in spending time, especially with high school students over the last couple of years to report my last book... And I spent time with high school students in urban areas and rural areas and suburban areas, students from high-income backgrounds, low-income backgrounds. What was interesting to me was we don't know enough about jobs. Like most students decide what to do based on what they know. And think about the average 18-year-old and what they're exposed to and who they know, and particularly, obviously, if you come from privileged backgrounds, you have access to more types of jobs. You see them, what your parents do, what your neighbors do and things like that. But for most students, we only see a couple of jobs. And so when you go to college or more likely, when you're graduating from high school, you have no idea what is out there and what you can do and what you like to do.
One thing I would like to see is more job shadowing and more access and more exposure to jobs and careers at a much younger age. I just don't think that people know.
Kevin: Yeah. Well, talk to me about your most recent book. You've written several books. You know, I was excited to have you on, I must say. So I started reading the book you're talking about, "There Is Life After College." I was fascinated. Did you really do 750 interviews?
Jeff: Yeah, so I spent time with students. That was a survey of 750. So I interviewed some of the people. I didn't interview 750, but we did a survey of 750 students in their mid-20s or 25 to 27. And we asked them, if we could reverse engineer your careers over the last 10 years, what did you do and what didn't you do that got you to this point in life?
Kevin: What were some of the takeaways that the surveys, and going through the process of really digging deep into the experience of those 17 to 27-year-olds, what were some of your big takeaways?
Jeff: So a couple of things were really true. One was debt. Too many students are taking on too much debt to go to college, and what happens is the more debt you have, the more that that debt defines your life after college. We know from research, for example, you're less likely to start a business if you have student loan debt. Increasingly, you can't go to cities or take jobs that would provide you access to social capital that would lead to better jobs and better opportunities down the road. So debt is a big thing.
Second is that experience, having hands-on experience. We found, for example, that students who had interned had a much better chance of launching after college than those who didn't. And what's really important is that we found 85% of employers, big employers, hire only from their intern pools, not from their general pools. So what it means is that if you're not interning in that company in college, you're never getting a job there. And I think that's really important because most people don't know that, going into college.
And then finally, the biggest piece is the credential itself. So we have all of these people go off to college every year. But one of the things that I don't think most Americans understand is only about 50% of students graduate with a bachelor's degree after they go to college. Right? So we are a lot of students leave college with some credit. We've tens of millions of Americans out there with some credit and no degree. And if you ever look at a job ad, they're going to ask for a credential. They won't say. "Some college credit, no degree necessary."
Kevin: So let me ask you this. This whole idea of expectations, when you talk to those kids, say the 26, 27-year-olds, have they given up? And what are their expectations for themselves after having gone through this experience, especially being burdened with the debt?
Jeff: We found that there were some students, we classify them as stragglers or wanderers, right? Wanderers tend to wander after college. But by their mid-20s, they find their way. The stragglers, sometimes it's that 30th birthday that hits them in the face and they were like, "Oh my God, I really need to grow up." So it's not that all is lost.
Jeff: One thing though that I find really troublesome, Kevin, is that the system itself is inefficient. In other words, we're sending all of these kids off to college at the age of 18, or we're encouraging them to go to college, right? We measure everything by the college going rate, right. We even measure the success of our high schools by the college going rate. And it's not that students maybe shouldn't go to college. It's maybe that they're not ready at that point in their life. And they go off to college, they take on lots of debt. They leave college without a degree. Those are the students that end up taking until maybe they're 30 to really find their way.
And I'm thinking, what if we had just delayed college by a little bit, maybe help them find a mentor, help them find training, help them find what they really were wanting to do and were passionate about. Just think of how much more efficient that system would be and how we would take the full force of our human capital that's available to us.
Kevin: And what about the admissions process? And I know you've written about this. Should we do away with the ACT or the SAT?
Jeff: I'm not a big fan, maybe because I didn't do well on the SAT myself, right? One thing we know about ACT and the SAT is that it predicts freshman year GPA. That's about it. What we do know really predicts success in college, in other words, will you stay there, will you do well, when will you graduate, are high school courses and high school grades. So there's really no reason we need a test score.
And we know that test scores are highly correlated with family income. So at a time when we're trying to have more equitable outcomes, particularly at these highly selective colleges, the easiest way to do that is to make testing optional, or to just do away with it altogether. And if they're worried about, you know, you hear this from alums, well, what's going to happen to their standards, they're still gonna have high school grades and test scores as a gatekeeper to who gets in and why.
Kevin: Some of the first questions college admission staff will ask is how they do on the ACT, the SAT, what were their grades. How do we get the whole child picture sort of embedded in the admissions process across the board?
Jeff: I think it's going to be really hard, Kevin. Unfortunately, after spending a couple of years embedded in the process, the problem is that all the incentives are aligned in the wrong direction. And to be honest with you, they come down to rankings and prestige. And so until essentially the top schools decide this is important and lead everyone else along with it and then the U.S. News & World Report rankings and everything else will follow, we're not going to change. That's really the only way it's going to happen, unless the federal government, which I don't think it will do, will come in and say, "Okay, if you want access to all of this federal aid, whether for your students or for research, you have to do these five things." And again, I don't think they'll do that. I think that's the only way they'll change.
Kevin: Well, and I was going to ask you, you brought them up, what role should the federal government play? For years, they went after the for-profit colleges. But I think the things that you're alluding to, that, frankly, I think you're right, in terms of fundamental support in how kids are admitted into college, how they move through college, what should the federal government be doing? How can they move beyond the bully pulpit and put some meat on the bones to help incite some of those changes?
Jeff: Well, the biggest meat on the bone, I think, they could do is to really put in some pricing restrictions on federal aid. There was this hypothesis during the Reagan administration, Bill Bennett, who then was the education secretary, who believed that every time that you added money to the federal aid, the tuition would go up. I don't necessarily believe that, but it's clear that there is no incentive for colleges to cut costs unless the federal government basically says, "You know, in order to get those aid, you're going to have to increase costs by only the cost of living," or whatever it might be. I think that's the biggest thing that the federal government can do because they have some control over that. And affordability goes back to almost everything that we're talking about. It's the reason why students don't go to college. And it's also the reason why students drop out is because they can't afford it.
Kevin: It. What about the pandemic? Does the pandemic give us an opportunity to foster some of the change that you're talking about?
Jeff: Yes. I mean, the pandemic might've been a silver lining for higher education. There were so many things that it did in the past year that they said they can never do, or I think would have taken 10 years to do. And we did it all in the last 15 months. Online learning, I think, is a big piece of it, right? It's not that students are going to learn all online, but there are so many pieces of the online experience that I think will now be used in the face-to-face classroom.
The other thing is much more flexibility, flexibility about grading, how we assess students, even the academic calendar, this belief that you have to start school in September and end in May. We're now seeing a lot more flexibility with that calendar, which I think could help learners of all kinds.
Kevin: So, Jeff, this is what I really want to know. How would you advise high school students about their future? I'm going to assume the role of your kids, when they asked you about college. I wrote something down, so I want to make sure I read it. So this is the hypothetical: he's growing up in Columbus, Ohio, 16-year-old junior. He gets in no trouble. Not really good in math, B minus student, no extracurriculars. What options would you give that student?
Jeff: It's really interesting, Kevin, you almost described to me at the age of 18, except for Columbus, Ohio. I grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, northeastern section of Pennsylvania. My mother didn't go to college. My father was a high school music teacher. I had probably mediocre grades by today's standards, as I look back on those report cards.
You know, the one thing...I ended up going to college, even though about half of my high school didn't go to college, because I was encouraged by my parents and my sister and brother. But one thing that really helped me is I had mentors. And to me, Kevin, whether it's in high school or college, I always tell people when they're looking at colleges, find places where the people matter. The problem with these most selective colleges is you'll go there, you'll never meet those faculty members who are "famous," writing books, winning Nobel prizes and things like that. They don't want to teach. Go to a place where somebody will actually watch out for you and care about you. And I had that. I was lucky enough to have that in high school, with teachers. I was lucky enough to have that in college with advisors and with professors.
To me, the best advice is for a student in that case, this student in Columbus, Ohio, is there somebody, is there a coach, a clergyman, somebody in the community, somebody in the school that you could get advice from? Just sit down with them once in a while, talk to them about careers. This, to me, is the thing that we should be doing at a much greater scale, where the teachers and our staff members and coaches in high school are much more mentors than they are teachers, because that's really what our young people need.
Kevin: Yeah, I did not know how you would answer that, but you know what, Jeff, that's a brilliant answer and I think it's so true. I've often believed that many times, it's just one, one important authority figure adult who can guide a child. I do have to ask the subset of that question. Let's assume this student was white, would your advice to that child differ if it were a woman, black or brown, Asian child? There are so many complexities in today's educational circles. It seems to me, your answer may apply no matter who the child is.
Jeff: It would, but I will tell you this, we know from the research, and this is a big thing right now in college that I worry about... Kevin, I spoke at New Jersey City University a couple of years ago for convocation. And I looked out on the student body, mostly students of color. And then in the middle, there was this sea of whiteness. Who were they? The faculty.
If you're a student of color, I think what's most important, and we know this from the research, is that you want to see your lived experiences in the people teaching you. We all want that, right? And white students have had that for most of history. You want to have people who understand where you came from, what you understand, and what you know, and that, to me, is if that student in Columbus, Ohio, for example, is African-American or Hispanic or whatever, you want to go to a place where you're not only going to find those mentors, but they're actually going to be in the front of the classroom once in a while as well. Unfortunately, most college faculties are still pretty white, but increasingly, they are becoming more diverse. And I think that's important because otherwise, we know from the research, that success is going to be hard to come by, that you're more likely to drop out and more likely not to get that degree.
Kevin: Yeah, well said. Well, Jeff Selingo, thank you for joining us. I tell you what, I hope more and more people listen to you. You have a lot of amazing insights that are valuable. Thanks for joining us.
Jeff: It was great to be here. Thanks, Kevin.
Stedman Graham is an educator, author, and businessperson. He is the chairman and CEO of S. Graham & Associates, a management and marketing consulting firm specializing in the corporate and educational fields. Stedman is a prolific writer with 10 published books, two of which are New York Times bestsellers. He has taught at the University of Illinois, Northwestern University, and several other colleges.
Stedman has a bachelor’s degree in social work from Hardin-Simmons University and a master’s degree in education from Ball State University. He resides in California with long-time partner, Oprah Winfrey.
Jeff Selingo has written about higher education for more than 20 years. He is a New York Times bestselling author and his latest book, Who Gets In & Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was named among the 100 Notable Books of 2020 by the New York Times.
Jeff is also a regular contributor to The Atlantic, a special advisor for innovation and professor of practice at Arizona State University, and the cohost of the FutureU podcast. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his family.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.