• Ryan MacInnis

What Vocational Schools Can Teach Top Universities About Disruption in Higher Education

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Imagine a company that produced trumpets, pianos, and motorcycles. Does it seem likely that it would make all three well enough to be successful? What about world-class? This isn’t a mythical company, this is Yamaha; and they did these three things extremely well.

By the turn of the 21st century, Yamaha was the market leader in motorcycles, wind instruments, and pianos. Aside from taking what it learned producing organs, bikes, and other high-performing metal instruments at scale, it hired world-renowned classical musicians to serve as consultants to work on acoustic improvements to wind instruments and push the boundaries of performance to meet the needs of markets that hadn’t experienced their products yet.

When asked about Yamaha, Renold Schilke, a professional orchestral trumpet player said, “One of the main things that attracts me to Yamaha is the fact that the company shares my philosophy of pushing ahead with development of improvements even though the market does not demand them.”

10 years ago, the market wasn’t demanding online learning or the ability to receive education from those with real-world experience as instructors. A pursuit of scholarship, world-class research institutions, and learning from Nobel Prize winning faculty members was plenty in the history of higher education. But today, tuition is multiples higher than inflation, and the experience of a college education hasn’t changed in nearly 20 years.

The key to innovation in higher education, however, can be found in the 60-plus co-op programs and vocational apprenticeships that have existed for more than 50 years across the country. Job placement rates, and student employment success are nearly 50-100% higher than the national average when students have access to practitioners who can prepare them well for the jobs they’ll do upon graduation.

In this piece, I will show that bringing work-place based education models – a combination of practitioner faculty and online learning – to higher education will not only prepare and place students more effectively in jobs upon graduation, but will also drive down the costs of operating a college or university, shedding barriers to entry to anticipate the needs of future generations. I’ll also show that while incorporating co-op programs and vocational schools present cost challenges for today’s University looking to make a change, they outline a blueprint for student success that meets the demands of today’s economy.

And by adopting the Yamaha model of practical experts vs. theoretical, universities large and small can continue to be competitive and more operationally efficient while delivering a truly accessible education.

Before we dive in, there are two disclaimers that I’d like to make:

  • I am not a higher education professional, or an expert by any means. I am a current MBA student who has gone from in person to online education at NYU, and come from a family of educators, professors, and principals.

  • None of these thoughts, opinions, or claims are those related to my employer in any way – they are my own, as someone passionate about giving students the ability to receive a blend of vocation and scholarship in higher education.

How Harvard Made Higher Education More Expensive and Less Efficient for Everyone Else

As a marketer, I’m constantly studying companies, brands, products, and services that position and message themselves extremely well. When everyone competes on price and value, how does one stand out from the crowd? What does “different” really mean when at the end of the day, everyone is selling the same product?

To understand the challenges of our current higher education system, we first need to understand how this model was created. Over the last hundred years, Harvard developed much of the model education system for the rest of the country, and world, to look up to. However, the “bigger is better” mentality has led to a bloated system where everyone, even those at the top, are struggling to keep up.

A focus on academic competition

Harvard established an honors system, as well as latin-based rankings to encourage competition amongst students. There was a harmony between residential college social life and academic rigor, however, in recent years this utopia has proven to result in an inflated reality of the quality of education expected nearly 100 years ago. There are two elements feeding each other here: adjunct professors teaching more classes, and students looking for ways to find easy, or grade-lenient instruction. Because non-tenured faculty are wary of getting poor student reviews and feedback, they tend to grade more leniently, resulting in curves, etc. Students, to encourage more of this, select professors with a history of this behavior, as opposed to which class will be the most academically challenging. Look at some of the reviews at and you’ll see more of this being promoted.

There’s a reason why some schools like Harvard are some of the hardest to get into, yet more than 80% make the dean’s list. This key element will be crucial in thinking about how we promote and incentivize both students and faculty later in this piece.

Breadth, and depth, in a curriculum

Modeled after the top English, and then German institutions, Harvard shaped its curriculum to offer both general and elective courses that would attract the world’s leading scholars, paving the way for students to feed into graduate coursework and ultimately contribute back to Harvard either in research or teaching - or both. The problem with this, however, is there is an inherent competition between hiring scholars with expertise in a specific field while offering students the breadth of a general education. With this competition comes a rise in operating expenses of offering more classes to students, and expecting them to navigate the non-transferrable, prerequisite nature of a progression from general to specialized education.

Simply put, the more specializations you offer, the smaller the class size, which means the cost per student is extremely high compared to lectures for general education. Universities offset this cost hiring lectures and TAs to leave tenured professors to do research and focus on specialized classes, but like a snowball rolling down hill, this problem only gets amplified with time.

Tenure systems

Tenure was originally established as a way to protect academics from political reprisal. Harvard famously used tenure as a way to pioneer research and attract Nobel Prize winners to mold its young minds, but as of late, colleges and universities have felt the pull between a tenured contract and the relevancy and skill of the knowledge that individual possesses, a decade or more later. I am not arguing that tenure should be removed. The percentage of faculty who are on track to be tenured is declining, at about 1 in 4 professors, however the larger problem is that tenured professors present fixed costs the university incurs, so that the floor of tuition, expenses, etc cannot be lowered.

The bigger problem is that the real hidden cost of tenure is the lack of real-world experience to be shared with students, as well as the complacency that comes with a dearth of recent research, making it harder to motivate, and hold tenured professors accountable. As a pillar of future frameworks of education, there needs to be a balance between cutting-edge research, real-world experience, and accountability. Shifting the tides here, similar to other industries with outcome-based incentives will fundamentally reshape this model for the better. More on that later.

These three pillars of Harvard’s growth have led to thousands of copy-cat models across the country. Without Harvard’s endowment and tuition rates, however, it’s becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to replicate.

The Rise of the Practitioner: What College Co-Ops Show Us About the Future of Higher Education

Now that we know how we got here, we need to address the elephant in the room: tuition costs relative to job placement statistics. This is something I’ve become increasingly passionate about recently, as many schools tout acceptance rates and “some of the employers students have gone on to work for”, yet more than 50% of students nationwide are still unemployed six months after graduation.

To be clear, the opportunity is two-fold: to increase job placement rates, and more importantly, increase the number of students thriving in the workplace.

Victor Mullins, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies at the University of Maryland said, To truly prepare the next leaders to push organizations forward to success, business schools also need to evolve their often-dated curriculum and associated out-of-class experiences to prepare students to enter the workforce of the unknown.”

About 60 schools offer co-op programs, and there are two things that make them extremely impactful: they’re deeply integrated into the curriculum and they produce better-prepared students with average job placement rates around 90% within the first six months after graduation. As of 2019, 90 percent of Northeastern graduates who complete a co-op are employed on a full-time basis within their first nine months after graduation, and 50 percent of co-op students receive a job offer from their co-op employer specifically.

If thousands of universities were to implement these co-op style programs, the costs would outweigh the benefits. At Purdue, for example the Office of Professional Practice Program has a current budget of approximately $450,000 and this budget supports the entire office staff. MBA programs that tout summer internship placement success, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on prep, interviewing, and staff support for that three month period of time.

That’s why I’m particularly excited about the concept of “workplace-based learning”, as it brings the benefits of co-op programs without the overhead. While it may be new in the United States, it's something that’s core for higher education in Asia. China has four co-op models, one of them is a project-based model, where the faculty are employees of companies, and the expectation is that it’s a funneling mechanism, or pipeline, for new hires. It also has a joint-cultivating model, where a school and company partner jointly to develop particular skills and training relevant to what students will need to thrive in a professional setting. Building off of co-ops, the professors are employed by the companies that are either partnering with the university, or are those in the local community. This combination delivers incredible value to both students and employers.

What it Would Take to Deliver Workplace-Based Education to Students

In the United States, we put vocational training in a separate bucket of education. As one of my closest friends who is a mechanic calls it, “the difference between making money with your hands and making money with your mind.” Even though vocational training and blue-collar apprenticeships are separate to the curriculums of most colleges, they hold the blueprint for future success in a blended world of workplace-based education.

They highlight three main advantages:

  • Direct access to, and learning from, teachers that are hands-on in their apprenticeship to ensure what is being taught is relevant to what they need to know

  • Faster paths to employment, with instructors that have at least five years of work experience and a deep understanding of skills needed in today’s world

  • A price-tag ¼ the cost of a traditional higher education degree, with 90%+ job placement success rates

These benefits, if we think about them for a moment, are interesting solutions to some of the problems we outlined earlier in higher education:

  • Operating expenses that are unsustainable, mainly driven by a wide range of general and specialized topics that have low student to teacher ratios and are supported by tenured professors that increase fixed costs

  • Key topics like business, marketing, communications taught by those with little to no work experience that poorly prepare students for jobs without being able to share practical frameworks, tactics, and insights from being a practitioner in that profession

  • The rising costs of tuition relative to student job placement and success, as well as the quality of an education now that classes are online and are remote

The title of this piece was on what we can learn from vocational and trade schools, which have operated for hundreds of years at a fraction of the cost of an academic education, with higher job placement rates and average salaries that are $5,000-$10,000 higher than the national average.

As we think about what education will look like in the future, there are three proposed ideas that will not only decrease a lot of the overhead costs of today’s infrastructure, but will better prepare students for careers, taking a page out of the books of vocational and trade colleges.

Proposed Solutions:

1) Hiring practitioners as adjunct faculty

  • Want to teach at Yale’s business school? You’ll see PhDs and those whose areas of expertise are brought in to offer a well-rounded academic lens to business and marketing. As someone who has spent nearly 10 years in both startups and large companies in marketing, I can tell you that the backgrounds and topics of many business school professors cover maybe 25% of what students need to learn. Hiring practitioners not only provides students more relevant, and profession-related content that is currently being sought after in that field today, but the university doesn’t have to spend as much on them. Think about this: Assistant professors at Yale make nearly $100,000 within their first or second year teaching. Most marketers would do it for free.

2) Build technology for teachers not just students

  • If quarantine and remote learning has taught us anything, it's that the technology that’s built for the workplace can’t be the same technology that teachers and students use. Students can figure out Zoom, even prompt the teacher to record the session and figure out breakout rooms, but participation suffers and despite the rules of the game changing, teachers employ the same in-person tactics in an online world. Attention spans are shorter, lessons need to be more interactive. Solution #1 will help with that, Solution #2 will improve delivery.

3) Align school and student incentives based on outcomes

  • Many schools receive funding based on retention, graduation rates, and student job placement. If schools are incentivized to make students more successful, then there should be an increased focus on redesigning curriculums to support this. By offering less general classes and more specialized ones within a major to attract more diverse students and teachers, the school ends up building a broader faculty network that the schools can use for recruiting. Touting well-known practitioners and student success as a result increases class sizes, offsets operational costs with faculty, and ultimately gives students a break on tuition.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I am by no means an expert or stating that the thoughts in this piece are the 100% solution to the future of higher education. I’m simply sharing how a workplace-driven education system can not only better prepare students for the real world, but cut operating costs while ultimately making higher education more accessible, and worthwhile for millions of students around the world.


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