america's undergrads playing it safe

Why Your Undergraduate Degree (Probably) Failed You (and Everyone Else)

A Generation of Followers 

In his love letter to American innovation, Smart People Should Build Things, Andrew Yang raises the alarm that a narrow set of business sectors are disproportionately benefiting from our nations’ top graduates. And he proposes the theory that these career paths appeal to precisely the type of risk-averse and box-ticking person our education system is designed to produce.

This signals that we’re training students to be followers, not leaders.

Yang notes the surprising lack of variety in post-graduation paths for the US’ highest achieving undergraduates. Why do students from our nation’s top-ranked universities have a 50%-75% chance of ending up in either finance, management consulting, law, med school, Teach for America, or graduate school? [1]

Because the formula for success in these sectors is nearly identical to the formula for success in school. Students are addicted to the safe and the routine.

At every stage of a student’s academic journey, the path to success is defined by teachers and curricula, with grades providing a simple metric for measuring success. A student who wants to excel in school must master how to sit still, color by numbers, and stay inside the lines. Those who learn to play the game will be predictably rewarded with accolades and further advancement, whereas the students who don’t conform to these expectations will be filtered out.

Unsurprisingly then, newly minted undergraduates embrace pre-packaged career opportunities that they can predictably unbox. Our education system’s expectations and incentives produce people who want to be handed a defined path to achieving success.

Teacher, I’m Having Déjà Vu

The six professional pathways undergraduates commonly choose have at least three strong similarities with a student’s experience at every level of the US educational system:

1. A formal application process

Notice how all of the six sectors have a structured application process with stated admission criteria and defined timeline. This application and admission process closely mirrors how students progress from one stage of their education to the next and provide a familiar rhythm of advancement.

When faced with the daunting ambiguity of the job market, it’s no wonder students choose the predictable ritual of applications and admission.

2. A set of defined techniques to master

Graduate school and entry-level positions in finance, consulting, and law all promise a clear set of required competencies to achieve success and a defined pathway for ongoing achievement. Such positions in our society’s major rent-seeking industries promise wealth, prestige, and comfort if the new recruit can successfully master and deploy repeatable techniques that exploit inefficiencies and regulatory minefields.

Instead of nurturing innovators who create value, our education system churns out students who flock to industries that prey on society’s value creators.

3. A hierarchical and competitive environment

The highly structured and ruthlessly competitive environments of the financial world, consulting firms, corporate law firms, medical schools, and higher education are familiar territory for the student who has been forged in the US education system. Students are well adjusted to the rigorous gatekeeping and “dues-paying” practices that define these industries. They have already been trained on how to shut up, buckle down, and do whatever it takes to succeed, no matter how boring, unhealthy, or irrational the demands may be.

In the end, students are simply trading one form of kabuki theater for another.

Where are the Leaders?

If our education system produces compliant and risk-averse individuals who opt for predictable professions in rent-seeking industries, that’s a strong indicator that we need to rethink our approach to learning and personal formation.

We can start developing an effective leadership cultivation strategy by paying attention to the choices students at universities are making when they graduate. These colleges and universities get public money through grants and government-subsidized student loans, which means that we as a community are already invested in student outcomes.

A nation of followers provides a fertile breeding ground for “leaders” who call the shots from the shadows, enriching themselves while remaining unaccountable to the people. We need to train leaders because followers become servants of the status quo instead of advocates for change and justice.

Our society is more divided than ever, and it will only continue to get worse as feedback loops amplify the most controversial and antagonistic voices. In the midst of this crisis, our education system continues to churn out students who are content outsourcing their thinking rather than taking responsibility for rising above the noise to chart a new course.

We built Sash to provide an ecosystem where leaders and doers can take control of their self-formation. Instead of following pre-packaged formulas for success, Sash gives users the tools to build their own journey, and connect with their next growth opportunity. We empower free-thinkers who are looking to forge ahead, rather than follow the established trails.

[1] Andrew Yang’s Smart People Should Build Things, chart on page 38. The whole first chapter provides more context to these claims, and also a deeper exploration of Andrew’s own experiences studying at Brown and going into Law.

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