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Why Silicon Valley Falls Short When It Comes To Education

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Despite Silicon Valley billionaires’ remarkable track record of innovation, it appears they have decided to throw in the towel on higher education. Each year, many donate millions to old-line American colleges and universities that, together, graduate the same number of engineers as we did 25 years ago.

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs will grow by more than 17 percent in the next decade, but an aging STEM workforce and small number of students graduating today with STEM degrees means there are more than 2.5 million unfilled STEM jobs in the U.S. Today, only 18 percent of Computer Science graduates are women. The numbers for underrepresented minorities are even worse.

Failure to transform American higher education may undo the very building blocks of our nation’s innovation infrastructure. Instead, today’s current generation of entrepreneurs are spending their energy and resources lobbying for band-aid solutions like H-1B visas, when they could be reimagining the current pipeline to address the lack of female and minority engineers in their companies.

The results at the top are stark: Of the fifty wealthiest billionaires in Silicon Valley, only one fortune was generated by a woman. At Yahoo!, which is led by one of the highest-profile women in the Valley, only about 15 percent of their tech team are female.

Yahoo!’s data is not remarkable in light of the number of female STEM graduates, but Silicon Valley’s response is both cowardly and contrary to their change-the-world spirit. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has effectively replaced NASA. His sights are now set on a Mars voyage. Uber’s frenzied campaign to disrupt the taxi industry has already reached presidential proportions.

Contrast these efforts to change the world with Facebook’s response to diversity concerns: “It’s clear that we still aren’t where we want to be.” And Peter Thiel is probably Silicon Valley’s most well-known contributor to the higher education innovation discussion by doling out $100K to students who want to drop out of college — not exactly a way to solve our education crisis.

The robber barons of the past did not shrink from the daunting task of reforming a university system that was failing to keep up with technological innovation. In fact, the men who built the technology companies of their day — the railroads, ship yards and steel mills — also funded the modern research university.

In 1867, Johns Hopkins donated $7 million to an institution that later bore his name. It was the largest philanthropic bequest in U.S. history. Hopkins disrupted higher education by combining teaching and research in one institution, something truly radical at the time. Others soon joined the fray, as Andrew Carnegie (Carnegie Mellon University), Leland Stanford (Stanford University) and John Rockefeller (University of Chicago) donated their fortunes to establish similar research-based universities.

Last century’s wealth creators knew that Harvard and Yale wouldn’t adapt to the rapid shift in the technology of their day without competition. As a result, old-line universities were forced to try keep up with “upstarts” like MIT.

The impact of re-deploying higher education investments is not merely hypothetical. Consider the case of the Olin Foundation, which spent decades and millions of dollars in support of existing, “old school” engineering programs on university campuses. Frustrated by the lack of impact from their donations to traditional universities, Olin trustees threw out the playbook.

In 1997, they endowed the Olin College of Engineering with a $450 million gift that enabled a new engineering university to take risks: no tenure, few lectures and a revolutionary concept that taught future engineers how to learn by doing. Within a generation, Olin has become a top-10 engineering college and a model for other engineering programs. Today, Google, Facebook and Twitter recruit from Olin — which also happens to be almost 50 percent female.

The names that will adorn the great universities and post-secondary providers of tomorrow will be as notable in 150 years as Leland Stanford is to aspiring disruptors today.

If Silicon Valley’s top 50 billionaires earmarked a fraction of their wealth to the creation of new engineering universities, we could build more than 50 new Olin Colleges. We might challenge conventions like tenure, the Carnegie Unit and a monopolistic system of accreditation. Each institution would bear the unique philosophy of their founding benefactors, while sharing some radical innovations: dynamic classrooms that force students to “learn while doing” and curricula developed in partnership with employers.

They would be global in outlook and emphasize the development of core cognitive capabilities that are predictive of successful career trajectories, obliterating the false choice presented by Peter’s “Thiel Fellows.”

If founding a new engineering university fails to flip their switch, Silicon Valley might consider backing one of the many interesting new private sector disruptors. Minerva, backed by Benchmark, is building an elite, global university that claims to already be more competitive than Harvard, with more than 10,000 applicants for fewer than 200 slots.

A panoply of venture-backed higher education providers are starting to “unbundle” the college degree, often with superb results. Students who flock to Galvanize’s San Francisco campus to learn computer coding are rewarded with nearly 100 percent job placement rates — and in many areas, almost 50 percent of the students are female.

Silicon Valley billionaires are uniquely situated to propel innovation in higher education, not simply to use their wealth to perpetuate the status quo. Their ingenuity is needed. They should help launch a fleet of next-generation engineering universities, or help fund a new disruptive company that will move the needle on student success.

The names that will adorn the great universities and post-secondary providers of tomorrow will be as notable in 150 years as Leland Stanford is to aspiring disruptors today. The question is, which Silicon Valley visionaries will have their name on that plaque?


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