Higher education goes Hollywood

As I began my career in higher education in the late 1990s, technology seemed poised to upend the entire academic enterprise. The New York Times, in an article titled “Boola Boola, E-Commerce Comes to The Quad,” speculated that “just by doing what he does every day, a teacher potentially could grow rich instructing a class consisting of a million students.” Kim Clark, dean of the Harvard Business School, seemed to agree: “Faculty are dreaming of returns that are probably multiples of their lifetime net worth.”

The zeitgeist was that a star system was about to be born, with million-dollar online courses starring celebrity faculty.

As anyone who has taken an online course will tell you, none of this came to pass. More than 3 million students are enrolled in online degree programs that are largely text-based, delivered by faculty who have neither become famous nor rich. Meanwhile, the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) phenomenon of 2012 has come and gone as quickly as the Spice Girls. Higher education has definitely not gone Hollywood.

But Hollywood isn’t just about stars and blockbusters. Hollywood starts with talent, and in particular, spotting talent. Tinseltown is full of stories of serendipitous discoveries of talent: Lana Turner at a malt shop; Harrison Ford installing a door at George Lucas’ studio; Charlize Theron arguing with a bank teller.

Over the past decade, reality television has been dominated by programs like American Idol, America’s Got Talent and The Voice documenting the quest for entertainment talent. In the field of entertainment, it’s easy for anyone to spot talent. Equally easy to spot — and perhaps more entertaining — is clear lack of talent.

What’s not entertaining, however, are the prospects of hopefuls cast aside by Hollywood’s star system. The glamour of the Hollywood few must be viewed in the context of millions of hopefuls who never made it.

Would-be programmers without kick-ass code can find themselves shut out of good jobs.

While technology didn’t upend higher education by creating faculty celebrities, it is making it easier to spot talent, which will have a much greater impact. In the technology sector, the advent of coding repositories like GitHub has made it simple to evaluate programming talent — an imperative in a sector where top employees may be an order of magnitude more productive.

And while few employers have gone as far as Flipkart, which has begun hiring solely by evaluating code (and without interviews!), many have significantly elevated the importance of code reviews in their hiring processes. Traditional credentials appear to be receding in importance; Google’s Senior VP of People Operations is reported as saying that grades in degree programs are “worthless as a criteria for hiring.”

There’s a good reason for this. Research demonstrates that work samples are more predictive of job performance than any other factor — about 5x more predictive than years of education, 3x more predictive than job experience and 50 percent more effective than unstructured interviews.

But when Hollywood comes knocking, you take the bad with the good. So while Bay Area coders with stellar GitHub accounts command unprecedented starting salaries, would-be programmers without kick-ass code can find themselves shut out of good jobs where they might have succeeded in a more innocent era, when candidates with (mere) degrees were hired as entry-level developers.

Work samples are having a moment. Portfolium, an ePortfolio network that allows students to make their papers, problem sets and presentations (and the competencies therein) visible to employers, has grown to over 180 colleges and universities and 5 million-plus students and alumni in just over one year.

Employers across a range of industries — not simply IT — are now utilizing Portfolium to identify and recruit talent. Soon, employers of all stripes — marketers and manufacturers, architects and accountancies — may be able to identify raw talent as readily as Lana Turner at the malt shop 80 years ago, or a 10x developer on GitHub today.

Among places in the U.S. where college is least valued, Hollywood and Silicon Valley are near the top of the list.

Of course, aspiring accountants won’t be interacting with agents or managers, but rather with bots encouraging them to pursue certain coursework or to compete projects or virtual internships in order to further their competency profiles. If the work product is good, they’ll be evaluated by an actual human hiring manager and considered for employment. If not, they’ll have little hope of breaking in. And realistically, it won’t be accounting, but rather high-return professions where 10x performance is plausible, such as finance, entrepreneurship, medicine, engineering and biotech.

It’s likely that predictive algorithms will detect talent for employers earlier than currently seems possible — in high school or even middle school. If so, both educators and parents will need to be wary of early tracking, for fear that specialization at an early age might lead to false encouragement or disappointment. (Although, admittedly, few 12-year-olds will be crushed when they learn they’re not cut out for investment banking.)

The emergence of star systems in other high-value fields will necessitate equivalent “stage moms” — parents who are vigilant in ensuring their children are able to pursue an appropriate and balanced educational trajectory (something that requires a great deal of work in Hollywood).

Beyond high school, the Hollywood-ization of higher education is likely to create problems for colleges and universities. Among places in the U.S. where college is least valued, Hollywood and Silicon Valley are near the top of the list. Star systems can blind us from the value of higher education. The opportunity cost of a four-year college experience is unthinkable for many aspirants, so formal post-secondary education becomes something to pursue later. As it becomes easier to spot talent for most high-return careers, will colleges be left behind?

Recognizing that technology makes it much easier for employers to spot talent, colleges and universities need to embrace work samples. As technology-enabled star systems emerge in other high-value fields, institutions — and their credential programs — must emerge as clearly superior environments for students to produce superior work product.

This will be the outcome employers (and tuition-paying students) expect. Failure to do so will result in high-growth employers disregarding colleges and universities as a source of talent, and students voting with their feet — away from colleges, and toward alternatives pathways in the programmatic areas that should be most vibrant for universities.

As technology makes higher education go the way of Hollywood, if colleges and universities fail to make work product central to the enterprise of higher education, what was once University Avenue could easily become a Boulevard of Broken Dreams.