College education in America: What the hey, let’s party!

The Five-Year Party, by Craig BrandonJust in time for the upcoming school year, a new book has hit the stores that launches a fierce attack against today’s college education in America. As a father of one recent college grad plus another daughter just beginning her sophomore year, The Five-Year Party: How Colleges Have Given Up on Educating Your Child, by Craig Brandon (ISBN #ISBN-13: 978-1935251804) caught my eye.

Brandon is a former education reporter and college writing instructor. What’s his main beef? That college administrators have taken advantage of government loan largesse and other programs to create a campus environment that’s hardly conducive to the disciplined intellectual labor of learning. The way Brandon sees it, college administrators are more interested in students’ pocketbooks than their intellects.

Brandon trains most of his firepower on liberal arts colleges, many of which he characterizes as “education-free zones” where quaint traditional notions of learning – like attending classes and doing assigned homework – have gone by the boards. He cites statistics that only ~30% of students enrolled in liberal arts institutions graduate in four years … and that fully 60% take six years or more to get their undergraduate degrees.

The book outlines the conditions that contribute to these sorry statistics. Extensive student loan and grant programs mean that few if any students ever pay the “book rate” tuition at a private college or university. This has made it easier for institutions to raise tuition rates far in excess of the inflation rate.

Brandon claims it has also led school administrators to tolerate – even abet – the extra years students spend on campus. After all, it’s more money for them to pay officials their lucrative salaries … not to mention bankrolling the country-club like student centers and new athletic facilities that seem to be on every college’s wish list.

And during that extended time on campus, it’s “party on!” Never mind the lower educational standards … it’s easier and far more lucrative for colleges to give students what they want, rather than what they need, to build meaningful careers afterwards.

And what about the instructors? They may well lament the decline in educational standards. But they’ve found out the hard way that to enforce rigorous educational standards in the classroom invites a flurry of negative reviews on student evaluation forms (that are easily accessible online) – reviews that are often linked to tenure and promotion decisions. It’s easier to go with the flow, provide reasonably entertaining lectures … and give out decent grades to all but the worst performers.

But what does this mean for those students who decide to work hard during their college years and to graduate on time? They may end up with a degree that’s devalued in the eyes of employers.

Moreover, the general decline in the value of a college degree affects even those schools that have tried hardest to maintain the traditional rigors of education that once characterized nearly all liberal arts schools – practices such as requiring students to take extensive coursework in subjects that go beyond their chosen field of study.

Colleges like Davidson in North Carolina, Hillsdale in Michigan and Rhodes in Tennessee may make studying and achieving top grades a huge challenge for their students … but their regional reputations mean that those degrees don’t carry much cachet beyond a 300-mile radius of the school.

Meanwhile, students who attend some of the nation’s better-known ivy league universities or “near ivy” institutions sail on through, cafeteria-style, taking only coursework that is easiest or of greatest interest to them.

Who’s the bigger chump then?

It’s a bit painful to read The Five-Year Party … and hard to finish it without feeling pretty depressed about the state of liberal arts education in America. Besides, does anyone know of a liberal arts school or university that has actually gotten a good handle on controlling its spending? I can’t think of one.

This book makes it easier to recognize the merits of America’s community colleges, which help kids start out their higher education in ways that allow them to explore different areas of interest without the distractions of the “party hearty” campus atmosphere – or breaking the family bank for that matter. Institutions like Chesapeake College in my home area on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are doing yeomen work in this regard, and they deserve better recognition for it.

Joel Kotkin: America’s Best Years Are Still Ahead

The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050 by Joel KotkinIn the study of demographics – a field that has had its share of doomsayers over the years – the irrepressible Joel Kotkin has been a continuing voice of optimism. The Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and an authority on economic, political and social trends as well as demographics, Kotkin has also been one to defend suburbia as one of the key ingredients of successful urban development.

It’s been interesting to watch how these views have played out in relation to the predilection of many in the American elite to denigrate anything pertaining to the suburban lifestyle. In their characterization, “suburbia” is synonymous with faceless neighborhoods punctuated by numbingly similar commercial strip developments featuring cookie-cutter national chain stores and restaurants. The only difference between suburban Los Angeles and suburban Chicago is the palm trees.

The suburban mindset has also been maligned by many as being obsessed with material pursuits and economic upward mobility … and possessing little if any thinking that’s “progressive.”

As an example of this side of the debate, the publication of Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class – with its claims that metropolitan areas with high concentrations of high-tech employees, artists, musicians and gay people correlate to a higher level of economic development – articulates a theory that has been far better received by the news media and other members of the American intelligentsia.

Now, along comes Kotkin’s newest book … and with it his latest intriguing predictions. In The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, Kotkin argues that the coming 40 years will witness a resurgent America, even as the population swells by another 100 million souls. Comparing the birth rates of America to all other developed nations, along with the continued in-migration of people from other countries – particular Asian and Latin American – Kotkin contends that no other country anywhere will enjoy such ethnic diversity. And to Kotkin, youth and diversity equate with strength.

By contrast, Kotkin maintains that “most of the developed countries in both Europe and Asia will become veritable old-age homes.” Many of these nations, with their generous social safety nets, will face huge pension obligations without having younger workers to help shoulder the costs.

Kotkin’s bottom-line prediction is that Europe and Asia will decline even as America thrives. And not just economically but also culturally: “The most affluent, culturally rich and successful nation in human history.”

Kotkin also believes that the large new numbers of Americans will flock to – where else – the suburbs, which he characterizes as “the best, most practical choice for raising their families and enjoying the benefits of community.”

No doubt, there will be those who question Mr. Kotkin’s conclusions and predictions. What about the rise of China? How will illegal versus legal immigration affect social and economic trends? How about the widening gulf between the earning power of “technocrats” and the rest of the population? Not to mention the collapse of the family unit which has rendered so much of the fabric of “inner-urban” America dysfunctional at best … hopeless at worst?

Either way, this book is very interesting and helps us reappraise some of the “big trends” in social demography. The theories of Richard Florida’s “creative class” ring decidedly less compelling today, barely six or seven years on. It’s time now to consider Joel Kotkin’s interesting theories — with the same critical eye, of course.

Let’s Revisit the Yugo!

Yugo advertisementThose of us “of a certain age” remember well when the Yugo car was introduced to America with great fanfare. In 1985, the prospect of purchasing a small vehicle with an even smaller price tag (~$3,990) was irresistible to many – even with the high gasoline prices and gas lines of the 1970s looking more distant in the rearview mirror. For those on a budget, who could resist the allure of buying a new car for $99 down and a $99 monthly payment?

Here’s a startling statistic that bears this out: When the Yugo was introduced in the summer of 1985, more than 1,000 of them were sold in one day. In fact, the Yugo was to be the fastest-selling first-year European import ever sold into the U.S. – a record that stands yet today.

But in just a few short years, the Yugo would go from being a star to being a dud … from being the “it” car to being the butt of jokes.

How could this happen? The answers are found in a just-released book “The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History,” written by Jason Vuic (ISBN-13: 978-0809098910). This pithy, irreverent volume takes readers on a merry romp through its 250+ pages … and things never have time to become dull.

One of the earliest signs that the Yugo might not be all it was cracked up to be came when its American investors decided to drive a Yugo car across the country. What better way to test the product? In retrospect, they should have heeded the clear warning signs: the new car broke down not once … not twice … but three times during its ~3,000 mile journey.

Undeterred, they plowed ahead, forming a national dealer network and trumpeting the Yugo as a fresh, affordable European car that came with a small price tag and a big attitude.

But the reviews were scathing from the get-go. The car broke down during a road test by Motor Trend, leading the magazine to conclude that the vehicle was “hard to recommend at any price.” Some customers reported that their new Yugos came off the dealer lot with rust spots already showing in the trunk. That plus noisy brakes … rough-riding clutch … and a few other deficiencies not normally experienced until any other car is years old.

Predictably, it didn’t take long for the magic to wear off. By the time of Saturday Night Live’s famous parody of the Yugo – its fake TV ad for the Adobe clay car (at $179 apiece) – Yugo dealers across America were already closing their doors.

Actually, what’s most surprising to read is that the Yugo actually continued to be manufactured in Europe as late as 2008.

In retrospect, I suppose the Yugo wasn’t a complete waste of time. It helped us realize – once again – that despite the enduring appeal of a low-cost alternative, there’s no substitute for producing a quality product.

It’s also given us 25 years of great jokes.

Frequent Fliers’ Lament: U.S. Airlines are Second String

It isn’t just with automobiles that the U.S. public sees American companies as worse than their overseas counterparts. Our airline industry also comes in for its share of lumps.

Anyone who has ever heard horrific air travel stories from colleagues, friends or relatives – and that’s most of us – wouldn’t be surprised if consumer ratings of U.S. airlines pale in comparison to others. And now we have the record to prove it. SeatGuru, TripAdvisor’s online site that bills itself as “the ultimate source for airplane seating, in-flight amenities and airline information,” has just released the results from its most recent annual survey of frequent fliers (defined as people who have flown at least eight times in the past year).

And what does this year’s survey tell us? For starters, U.S. air carriers have the least comfortable seats of all airlines.

Also, they serve the worst food – if they serve it at all.

Rude flight attendants? Bottoms again.

Who ranks best? If you’re looking for good food, the survey respondents tell us we can’t go wrong with Singapore Airlines, British Airways or Air France. Perhaps surprisingly, Continental Airlines also ranked well. But avoid American, United and U.S. Airways – rated the worst of the bunch.

These same three U.S. carriers also scored at the bottom of the heap for the comfort of their economy-class seating. JetBlue does score well in this category; too bad most of us never get the chance to fly this airline because they serve precious few cities. (For the best business class seating, respondents gave highest marks to British Airways.)

And guess what? The very same three carriers – American, United and U.S. Airways – topped the list for having the nastiest flight attendants. If polite, friendly service is your thing, you’re far more likely to find that over at Singapore Airlines or Southwest.

What about the all-important performance metric of on-time flight arrivals? For that, we can look to actual data compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics rather than rely on survey findings. What we see is that for the first three months of 2009, Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance of any U.S. airline company, with more than 90% of its flights arriving within 15 minutes of schedule.

But they’re a small airline company. What about the biggest carriers? Southwest has performed the best, while Continental is at the opposite end of the scale.

And what flight to take if you want the dubious distinction of traveling the worst airline route of all? That would be Northwest Airlines Flight #5803 from Atlanta to Honolulu. It was late a mere 96% of the time. Well, there’s consistency for you at least!

As for getting yourself to your destination in one piece … may your pilot be Chesley B. ‘Sully’ Sullenberger.

Happy Travels!

This just in: The organization stinks. Now, what are you going to do about it?

I Hate People BookI’m in the midst of reading an interesting book with a provocative title: “I Hate People!: Kick Loose from the Overbearing and Underhanded Jerks at Work and Get What You Want Out of Your Job.” (Little, Brown Publishing, ISBN-10: 0316032298 … also available in a Kindle edition.)

I think this book takes some risks. It certainly bursts a few bubbles in the conventional thinking about organizations and how they work. If you read it, be prepared to discard some of those platitudinous notions about shared mission and vision, organizational behavior, teamwork, matrix management and all the rest.

Coauthored by Jonathan Littman and Marc Hershon, this book fearlessly tackles the thing many workers know but are afraid to say out loud: Every day they come in the office, people have to deal with colleagues who exhibit a host of traits they frankly can’t stand.

We’re well familiar with the types … and Littman and Hershon give us catchy names to describe them, such as:

“Stop Sign” — the person who always finds something wrong or unworkable with the latest idea/product/strategy/solution being proposed. (And isn’t it interesting how many of those issues would entail that person having to contribute a bit more time and effort of his or her own?)

“Switchblade” — be very careful of these people … they’re highly dangerous when you’re not looking!

“Happy Face” — you know, the folks who approach their work at the office the same way they circulate at a cocktail party or spend an evening at the country club.

Or “Time Waster” — there’s no explanation at all needed for this common specimen!

The idea of “teamwork” comes in for pointed criticism by the authors as well. In theory, teams are all about working together to achieve consensus and implement better programs or initiatives that everyone can support. Littman and Hershon remind us that too often, teams produce nothing more than mushy “group think.”

And the bigger the team, the more tepid the results. The authors contend that only a few team members carry their own weight; the others can get away easily with little more than just showing up at meetings. For this reason, we’re advised to join teams of no more than four or five people, where “hiding in plain sight” is far more difficult to pull off.

A good thing about this book is that instead of presenting a litany of problems and then just leaving the entrails on the floor, Littman and Hershon provide ideas for how to work around all of the mediocrity and the frustration. They sugggest practicing “solo-crafting.” What’s that? Basically, it’s taking it upon yourself to “just do it” rather than passing the buck or relying on others. Or, as the authors put it: Stop talking, stop acting, start doing.

The book is quick to point out that solo-crafting doesn’t mean becoming a loner or maverick. It also doesn’t mean becoming a peacock, screaming “Look at me, I’m so great!” — just the kind of person everyone loves to hate.

Instead, by accomplishing more while working within the orgnizational structure, Littman and Hershon contend that you’ll find yourself being recognized for your ability to actually accomplish what others simply give lip service to. And that will result in being asked to perform more key tasks, with more opportunity to be recognized and rewarded for a job well done. Solo, of course.

More Action on the Search Engine Front

Bing logo designWolfram Alpha logoDespite the fact that Google has proven itself to be all but immune from threats posed by competing search engines, hope springs eternal. Within the past couple weeks alone, two new challengers have emerged, accompanied by much fanfare in the business press.

Microsoft takes yet another swipe at Google with its new Bing search engine. Based on an earlier one called “Kumo,” some industry observers — though not all — believe it is a pretty good competitor. Reviewers are particularly pleased with the presentation of refined versions of search queries. Bing also features a rollover display of each link’s content, allowing you to see how useful it will be before clicking through to the site.

The search engine also appears to index more recent “breaking news” items, whereas with Google, those results are not shown unless you click through to Google News — an extra step.

The big question is whether Bing will be able to wean web users away from their habit of searching on Google as their default choice. Certainly, Microsoft is putting some serious promotional dollars behind the launch — upwards of $100 million according to Advertising Age magazine. But based on the tea leaves, a wholesale change in search behavior seems unlikely. Search habits aren’t going to change dramatically unless there is a dramatic improvement in the effectiveness and speed of search activity. Fom what we see of Bing so far, we’re talking about improvements nibbling around on the margin rather than big sweeping change.

But “big sweeping change” just might be the recipe for Wolfram/Alpha, the other new entrant in the search engine sweepstakes. That’s because W/A isn’t actually a search engine in the classsic sense. Instead, its developers refer to it as a “computational knowledge engine” that uses complex algorithms to search databases to come up with answers to questions, rather than presenting a list of sources where the answer might be found. It can report some really cool factual results just based on the user typing in, for example, a date range, several city names, or an animal species.

The key difference between Wolfram/Alpha and Google is that W/A does not index web pages. Instead, it draws answers from a wide range of information-packed databases. So if you want to know the number and magnitude of hurricanes hitting North America in the past 15 years, you’ll get a specific answer rather than being presented with a series of web links wherein you might find the answer to be hiding.

Some observers see the potential for W/A and Google to team up rather than compete against one another. After all, what they do isn’t directly competitive, but in more respects complementary. And in an interesting twist, it turns out that Stephen Wolfram, the ~50-year-old computer scientist and developer who created the software platform upon which W/A is based (called “Mathematica”), once supervised a summer intern by the name of Sergey Brin — who would go on to develop Google with partner Larry Page.

Sergey and Stephen teaming up once again would be quite the coincidence … or would it really?

The Newest Wrinkle in Social Marketing: Getting Paid to Praise

It had to happen. With the dramatic rise in the popularity and number of blogs and other social marketing sites on the web, sooner or later merchandisers would get wise to the fact that they can use them to pitch their products and services. And for just pennies on the promotional dollar.

How? By offering free merchandise or cash payments to bloggers who will then be favorably disposed to write positive reviews about new products. And with blog postings being indexed by search engines in just a few days or even a few hours, it’s an incredibly cheap way to gain positive exposure for their products and brands in cyberspace.

… Not to mention that many readers will not be wise to the authors’ tidy mercantile relationships with the companies whose products they are reviewing. This despite the efforts the Federal Trade Commission is making to update its nearly 30-year-old advertising guidelines to cover the new new-fangled techniques brought forth by the cyber revolution — tactics few could even have dreamed of just a few years ago.

How long will it be before the FTC has these new guidelines in place? Who knows? For the moment, there are no hard-and-fast rules regarding paid reviews. But there are some moves being made within the industry to provide “full disclosure” to readers. Blog entrepreneur Ted Murphy of IZEA Social Media Marketing requires his “for-hire” bloggers to insert an icon next to each product review that states: “Sponsored Post. 100% Real Opinion.”

“One hundred percent real opinion?” Does anyone seriously believe any sponsored post will be completely free of bias?

Of course, sponsored bloggers could write a negative review … and then watch as it’s the last time they ever have the opportunity to write for that supplier. Practically speaking, that’s not going to happen — and everyone knows it.

A more fundamental concern is what paid pitching is doing to the credibility of the blogosphere in general. If people find out that even one or two product reviews they read turn out to be nothing more than disguised advertising for the merchandiser, it could cripple the credibility of bloggers overall in the minds of those readers.

This whole phenomenon has the risk of turning a highly powerful consumer information resource into a caricature of itself. Those who read product reviews tend to be the more cautious – or the more suspicious – consumers among us. And so, despite providing every assurance that bloggers who are paid cash compensation or receive merchandise freebies for their posts will remain honest in their opinion … that’s not how it’s going to be received by the audience.

Advice to bloggers: If you value your credibility and your reputation, don’t accept quid pro quo compensation from companies whose products you are reviewing. Advice to consumers: As always … be careful of what you read online.

UPDATE: Two years later … and not much has changed. Here’s Honda’s latest shenanigans.

Happy Birthday to a Renaissance Man

Previn in younger days
Previn in younger days
andre-previn-at-801André Previn turned 80 years old earlier this month, which gives us cause to reflect on the incredible life of this highly interesting, very creative man. In his musical life, he’s demonstrated a versatility and catholicity that surpasses even Leonard Bernstein’s reputation.

Born in Germany, raised in the United States and truly a citizen of the world, Previn has lived out his life in the European capitals of London, Paris and Berlin … and here in the U.S. in places as diverse as Hollywood and Pittsburgh. A true wunderkind, he burst onto the musical scene back in the early 1950s, recording fine jazz piano arrangements that were released on 10” RCA Victor 78-r.p.m. and LP records … then soon migrated over to MGM Studios, writing musical scores for more than a dozen Hollywood films.

I own a few of Previn’s early jazz albums. His song arrangements are little gems – each one their own special musical adventure. Listen to his rendition of Stella by Starlight, for example, and you’ll immediately understand his special way with the music.

Previn’s pop music career masked the fact that he had studied classical music at the Paris Conservatory, and in San Francisco under the tutelage of the great French conductor Pierre Monteux. By the 1960s, Previn had moved from pop back to his classical roots, issuing a series of critically acclaimed recordings with the best symphony orchestras of London. His interpretations of the symphonies of Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Sir William Walton … along with recordings of the important British choral masterworks Belshazzar’s Feast and The Rio Grande remain touchstone performances, nearly 40 years on.

In his later years, in addition to guest-conducting the world over, Previn has penned a steady stream of memorable compositions, including several concertos for his ex-wife, the celebrated violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Even more impressive is Previn’s foray into the world of opera. His 1998 composition A Streetcar Named Desire has received more than 20 productions – an almost unheard of feat for a contemporary opera. And today, he’s busily at work writing a new work for the Houston Grand Opera to premiere next month, based on Noel Coward’s 1938 play Still Life (later made into the movie Brief Encounter).

At age 80, André Previn shows absolutely no sign of slowing down. And why should he? Musically speaking, he still has much to say … and the arts world is richer for it.

Happy Birthday, Maestro!

Welcome to the Customer Service Department … Dante Alighieri will be your tour guide.

Who hasn’t faced the frustrations of dealing with what passes for customer service today? I recall an ordeal several months ago when I spent the better part of three hours on the phone with Hewlett-Packard’s customer service department – if you could call it customer service – trying to get an issue resolved with reloading a printer driver for an HP model that is no longer classified as “current” – which in my case was a printer I purchased five or six years ago.

Because my model was older, I was transferred to a different help desk that turned out to be an outsourced/offshore area of HP’s customer service. (Presumably, the good folks at HP seem to think that outsourcing technical questions about older equipment will actually give their customers access to better knowledge than their own in-house personnel can provide …?)

The first 90 minutes of my ordeal were spent trying to talk to someone who could actually solve my problem, but about 90% of those 90 minutes were basically spent on hold. The next nearly 90 minutes was taken up with attempting to get my $59.99 service charge reversed, since I had been unable to speak with anyone who could actually assist me with my problem.

That’s an evening of my life I’ll never get back.

… Which made a new book just published on the woeful state of customer service capture my attention all the more. In Emily Yellin’s book “Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us,” (Free Press, ISBN-13: 978-1416546894 … also available in a Kindle edition), the author gives us plenty of statistical information, polling results and excerpts from studies to help chronicle the sorry state of today’s customer service affairs.

But it is Yellin’s “customer service hell” anecdotes – far more horrific than my own experience with Hewlett-Packard – that stick most in the memory. Those stories certainly provide fodder for a sort of morbid fascination; reading them is not unlike seeing an auto accident unfold in slow motion before your very eyes: You know what the final result is going to be but you can’t resist seeing it through all the way to the end.

Fortunately, not all is bad news. The author also cites some examples of where companies are trying – pretty diligently – to deliver a customer service experience that is at least “serviceable.” The book is a worthwhile read.

But back to my own experience. How did things turn out? Well, after nearly three hours on the phone, I was finally able to get my charge for service reversed. Then, rather than spend any more time trying to work with my HP printer, I simply purchased a new one. It was a Canon.