College. Why?

College. Why?

In a recent LinkedIn post Michael Bloomberg listed 5 principles for successful entrepreneurs; one was a relentless application of intentional curiosity—ask why, and never stop learning.

"My parents expect me to go to college, all my friends are going, and there really isn't an option. I was thinking about Duke, South Carolina, Virginia Tech or maybe Maryland."


Convention can be an intellectual straight jacket. "Cracking the shell of convention," argues Mark Edmundson in his excellent essays asking "Why Teach," is the key to fully exploring one's unique possibilities.

In qualitative research conducted while I was the CMO at The Johns Hopkins University we tried to understand the collection of schools high-achieving 16-17 year-olds had identified as their original consideration set. These lists are the first layer of that shell of convention worn by American youth that college counselors and recruiters are challenged to break through.

Young Billy or Susie will build their lists based on familiarity, social legacy and powerful merchandising—perhaps not always in that order. In some cases a Nobel Laureate-rich faculty has little appeal compared to the chance to emulate a popular fellow young person in a cool blue Duke hoodie.

Some high-achieving students will often hope to further appease their parents and impress their peers by adding an Ivy to the list. This gives mom, dad and Billy/Susie a short victory tour until the skinny envelopes arrive.

Answering "why" at this juncture is key to the ultimate success of the student at the school and beyond.

"Why college, and why now? What do you hope to gain? Where do you see yourself in 10 years? What are you prepared to sacrifice?"

Of late, parents and counselors have deemed these questions as unfair to the young person and uncomfortable for the professional. This is the thinking that has led to a generation of unemployed entrepreneurs with master's degrees in Zoology and $120,000 in student debt.

If when he is asked for answers, Billy channels Justice Potter Stewart and responds with, "I can not tell you now, but I will know it when I see it." This may be a time to introduce terms into the discussion such as Peace Corps, Armed Forces, City Year, or Community College.

These terms can serve to evoke a more thoughtful response, even if it is completely fabricated. Fabrication takes imagination, and that means we are on our way to cracking that shell.

"I think I should go to graduate school. Maybe law school."

This is a statement that requires immediate and indelicate intervention. Graduate school is an expensive place to procrastinate until you "see it."

When the college prospect pool becomes replete with informed and diligent consumers, these buyers will then use all available tools to search for the best value for their desired learning based on the specific parameters of their newly articulated goals. Simple really, once they decide what they are looking for it is easier to find.

Yes and no.

Colleges and universities are also newly compelled to more boldly declare their own distinctive institutional strengths and personas, as opposed to presenting the ubiquitous lists of standard amenities and platitudes. They have to answer: "Why should someone come here? Why is it so expensive? What can students really expect? How is it distinctive?"

We don't want everyone at our school; we want the people who will be best served by coming to study with us. We want Billy and Susie to go to the right place for them, so they have the most rewarding experience possible and become a fully satisfied contributor to their communities. In the macro sense, crafting good productive educated citizens is a by-product of managed expectations in the pact between colleges, their students and sponsors.

These questions almost always generate uncomfortable and contentious conversations for college counselors, parents and students; there will undoubtedly be drama, guilt assignment and long periods of strained relations. Yet, in the end, it all works out. If not, ask "why not."

That's how you know you're doing it right.


Chris Cullen is Infinia Group's resident expert in higher education, and Managing Director of its Washington, D.C. office. He can be contacted at 240-482-4966 and