This week I attended a fascinating workshop facilitated by the folks at IDEO and the Lumina Foundation. They brought together a diverse group of grantees focused on using ‘innovation’ to change college access and success outcomes in America. This group is largely focused on increasing attendance of low-income and first-generation attendance in both two-year and four-year colleges.

What plagues this group is the lack of systemic and scalable change they are able to make. There are many organizations doing great work; they are serving kids one-on-one, but there is significant human capital being expended for this success. The dream of this group is how to make college accessible and affordable to anyone that wants it. My client in particular, College Forward, has a goal to end the cycle of poverty through college.

Even this group is starting to question however, is college enough. What else needs to be done to ensure these kids are independent thinkers, with the right soft skills to enter the world as productive members of society? What is the balance of job readiness to education? And how do you take such personal journeys and replicate them to scale? It was a fascinating conversation that of course was filled with its fair share of, “well this is how it’s always been done in academia” conversation (as these sessions always are), but it was also motivating to see how many minds truly want to change the system.

On the same day the Wall Street Journal ran a special section on education and there was a particular piece that stood out to me, ‘Do Too Many Young People Go to College?’ many of the arguments in this article were that we as a country are wasting significant resources sending kids to school to get degrees that will never use those degrees in practice and therefore the debt they may possibly incur is not worth it.

Both of these make me ask a fundamental question, ‘What is the value of a critical mind?’ I certainly am not using the degree I earned (a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin) in its literal sense today, but what I did gain out of my post-secondary education is how to think for myself, how to question my contribution to every situation, and how to navigate a world of competing demands and priorities – invaluable lessons in my opinion. I also had the benefit of having entrepreneurial parents (one with a degree and one without) that were encouraging and always challenged me to do my best. Most of the kids we are discussing don’t have either – mentors that teach them to think critically or family that encourages them to be anything they dream of.

To me, the real question is, how do we in a systemic and scalable way determine what is each kid’s best, and provide them the tools and resources to get there (whether it be education or mentorship), without putting them at an economic disadvantage in the future?

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