After hearing from students what they’d change about today’s education system, my mind kept reverting back to one remaining issue: grades. The singular thing every student strives for. But, why? What’s more impressive? A perfect 4.0 GPA, or a student who started his first company when he was 13 years old? How about another who, despite dropping out of college, founded his own marketing agency by the time he was 22? My guess is, you’d hire them first, because you wouldn’t have even glanced at their cumulative average.
Ken Bain, who is provost, vice president for academic affairs and a professor of history and urban education at the University of District Columbia, recently told Inside Higher Ed, “Getting good grades in college is not as important as developing a creative, integrated and lifelong learning style.” Bain, whose book What The Best College Students Do, set to be published by Harvard University Press in August, admits:
Instructors must give students ways to learn and find success through trial and error — all before making a mark in the gradebook. This way, students take time during the process to develop their interests instead of being motivated solely by receiving a good grade.
As Tufts student Kenneth Cohen pointed out, “It’s not really about how you are learning, but what you are learning. Courses inhibit passion by laying everything out for you.” And other students agreed. What they are looking for is more real world experience, career preparation and collaboration. They’re tired of the books professors need to blow layers of dust off of before doling them out to the class. They’re tired of hearing a college degree is the only option they have to enter the workforce.
Harvard’s Graduate School of Education released a report last year challenging the focus on the four-year college pathway. Although 70 percent of high school students move on to college, what the University found was that fewer than half of those students actually earn a four-year college degree. What they felt students needed were alternatives — “additional pathways.” And so they started the Pathways to Prosperity Project, that six states have already jumped on board to help with.
Grades are what’s at the root of this, though, because how else do you earn a college degree than by securing a professor’s check marks and gold stars? The sad thing is — those grades don’t even matter.
As Ben Nelson, CEO and founder of The Minerva Project, pointed out in a prior interview, students could get a C in every one their classes at an Ivy League school like Harvard or Brown, yet still walk away with a Harvard or Brown degree. One overly-prepared, panicked student could strive four years for straight As and stand there at graduation jobless, while the person to her right could have received grades just good enough to pass their classes and already have a six-figure salary lined up for the following week.
Never once in a job interview has a potential employed asked, “What did you take in college?” All they needed to know was that I graduated, fulfilled my internship requirements and then some and that was more than enough for them. Sure, saying I went to Emerson didn’t hurt either, because it’s a school known for pumping out — dare I say without sounding at all conceited — talented journalism students, but what I did outside of the classroom reflected more of who I was as a person. Not the “C” I received in Non-Western History, because I felt more inclined to show up to my internship 10 minutes early than memorize facts no one’s expected me to rattle off years later.
So, sorry for all of you who’ve been dreaming of nothing but graduating Summa Cum Laude — grades don’t mean jack. Passion will be what gets you into an entry-level job, and motivation will be what pushes you higher up the career chain.
I asked managers at Yahoo, Google, Amazon, Cisco and Microsoft how they’d feel about two candidates, both 24, with equal ability, one who’d tried to start a startup that tanked, and another who’d spent the two years since college working as a developer at a big company. Everyone responded that they’d prefer the guy who’d tried to start his own company. Zod Nazem, who’s in charge of engineering at Yahoo, said, “I actually put more value on the guy with the failed startup, and you can quote me!” So there you have it. Want to get hired by Yahoo? Start your own company.
Maybe you don’t need to start your own company, but if you actually do want a job after you graduate, make sure you have some real world experience.