Tag Archives: business

In the Market (For an Education)

by Matt McKinnon

college-student

There is a thick stack of beautifully-produced glossy pamphlets depicting fall leaves and smiling good-looking young people and gothic architecture on my kitchen counter. So many that they continuously slide around and fall off onto the floor to be chewed on by Max the family dog and stepped on by most everybody else. And more arrive everyday: a continuous stream of personalized correspondences proclaiming “Hey Nick” and “Fit is Everything” and “Rocky Says Yes” and “Your Future is Now.”

It can only mean one thing. And anybody who has a kid who’s a junior or senior in high schools knows just what it is:

It’s time to apply to college.

college brochures

I must admit, it’s been a while since I did any applying to schools—the last time being over fifteen years ago when I applied to doctoral programs. It’s been almost thirty years since I applied to undergrad, and even then I only applied to one school.

There may have been a few brochures here and there, but certainly nothing to compare with the mass of publications that seem to be single-handedly keeping the US Postal Service in business.

Ah, there’s the applicable term in all of this: business.

money-diploma

College, for better or worse, has become a business, and like all businesses, it relies on advertisement.

Ergo the huge stack of pamphlets overtaking the counter.

For even in this age of digital technology and social media, not to mention limited resources of both the natural and economic kind, colleges are still heavily invested in print. And nice print at that: thick glossy paper with lots of color and professional graphic design. Some even send short books, paperbacks that are designed more like travel guides than college brochures.

But don’t get me wrong, there’s heavy investment in digital media as well, from emails and Facebook messages to Tweets and IM and who knows what else. And even phone messages from personal Admissions advisors and perky college students extolling the joys of going to Whatever U or This-and-That State.

soccer

Throw in the fact that my son wants to play Soccer, most probably in Division II or III or perhaps even NAIA, and you have another aspect to deal with. College coaches (though limited in how much contact they can have) sending texts or leaving phone messages. Recruiting companies selling their services. College Showcases here; ID Camps there. Recruiting forms to fill out and highlight videos to make.

And if you add something else like band or the International Baccalaureate program, then it all gets multiplied exponentially.

Schools we’ve never heard of contacting us and sending materials. Like Finlandia, which is not quite all the way in Finland, but it’s close (Upper Peninsula Michigan on Lake Superior). Or Lutheran Schools of every Synod imaginableevidently, when you apply to one Lutheran School, they tell two friends, who tell two friends, and so on and so on, until the thought occurs that maybe we’ll convert to Islam just to stop the obscene amount of materials coming from Lutheran schools alone.

euphonium

And God forbid your student played a highly coveted instrument in the band. Like the Euphonium (the what? I know; it’s a fancy baritone). On a recent college visit to the corn fields of Nebraska my son met with the band director, even though he has little to no inclination to continue playing in college. When asked by a few band students in the music building what instrument he played, the opening of their eyes was only exceeded by the gaping of their mouths as they sat there drooling, barely able to contain their joy: “Euphonium? You play the Euphonium?” Even the band director could not completely hide his emotion (I still swear I saw a little tear in his eye as he spoke), promising the chance at several thousand dollars in scholarship without even the requirement of a music major or minor. “Just a couple of practices a week and concerts a few times a year.”

In real estate, they call this a “buyers market.”

The fact of the matter is that colleges and universities need students way more than students need colleges and universities.

college-photo

By that I don’t mean to denigrate a college education, only that the supply seems to be outpacing the demand. And the skyrocketing cost of a higher education isn’t helping, as schools vie for the attention and tuition of students who have many choices, from traditional to online.

College is expensive, the College Board recently reporting that the average total cost (including room and board) for a four-year in-state public school is $18,493.00 per year, and $32,762.00 for out-of-state. Cost for the average private school is $42,419.00.

And with such high dollar amounts and a plethora of choices comes the need to stand out. To show how these amenities or those services provide the best fit or opportunity or quality of life or whatever. Hence the need to sell; the need to advertise. The need for all those %@#& pamphlets and brochures.

in-class

Gone are the days when colleges and universities just offered an education to students. Now, like everything else, we offer services to a clientele: a product, a lifestyle, a brand.

I don’t know if, in the long run, this is a good or a bad thing. After all, one benefit is the opportunity of higher education to a broader range of students. Of course, one of the drawbacks is the oppressive student debt that a generation of students has racked up since we shifted paradigms from mostly grants to mostly loans several decades ago.

College is big business now, and not just the athletic programs with sponsorship and television deals. It’s big business for academics too. And let’s not kid ourselves: given the amount of money that the government receives from interest rates, it’s big business for the federal government as well.

And big business means big advertising. And creating demand. And promoting a brand. And selling series.

Which in term means lots and lots of slick pamphlets and shiny brochures collecting on the counter.

votc

Occupy Capitalism

By Wade Maki

I’ve started writing this from a hotel room in Kearney, Nebraska where I’ve just finished five presentations at a two-day symposium on the Morality of Capitalism at UNK. Several times during the conference, the “occupy” protests came up (especially the occupy Kearney protests here in a small college town). Most of the faculty presenting said nice things about the protesters for getting involved and standing up for something (most faculty get the impression students won’t stand up for anything other than their own grade). These faculty encouraged students to join in a movement – whatever side they choose – as that is the only way to change things. Other faculty, a smaller bunch, spoke of the occupy protesters as a muddled and confused group making more of a spectacle than any positive change.

The idea of students getting involved in something (other than the quest for test scores and grades) is something I approve of. Of course I’m not much of a protest type and find serious faults with the occupy tactics such as:

  1. The name occupy implies a hostile trespass of someone else’s space.
  2. Camping in parks and hanging out attracts the wrong kind of attention.
  3. Chants, drum circles, and odd dress do not help market the message.

Professional Organized & Appealing to Middle America

This is intended as a friendly criticism. Think back to how Dr. King managed his movement for positive change. People dressed up, gathered at a particular time, marched where they would be visible (but not overly intrusive on others daily lives), held a rally with well thought out speeches and then everyone went home. This created a positive impression with the middle-American majority whose support is needed to effect real change. To convince people, it helps to have a coherent message, presented by people who look like the intended audience, and ensure that your side avoids exposing itself to bad PR (every crazy dressed, incoherent speaking protester gets interviewed by the news, which does not advance the cause). It is my sincere hope that these well meaning folks get it together.

Not the marketing image for Middle America, but sure fire Fox News interview!

Having offered a critic of the occupiers (best thought of as outsiders), I’ve saved a few words for the insiders. After the last symposium session when I returned to the hotel where there was an additional conference (some sort of business professionals’ event) I overheard the following perspective expressed in the hallway:

“You see the occupy people protesting?”
“Yeah there were 8 of them.”
“They’re all unemployed with nothing else to do aren’t they?”
“Yes, oh, and they got run off too.”
“Good…”

Are all capitalists necessarily greedy pigs as portrayed?

While I didn’t hear every word in that hallway conversation, the disdain they held for the (presumably) unemployed people exercising their rights to assemble and express opinions were a stark contrast to the generally positive messages of support expressed by conference faculty.  I’m often surprised how the same event is seen so differently by different groups of people. Why some are encouraging protests and others are ridiculing protesters without a focus on resolving the very real problems that cause people to protest (even if they can’t quite articulate exactly what they are)? Further, who among us that is employed doesn’t see how it very well could be us that were laid off in the recent crisis? Why is there no compassion from the insider (who knows they are lucky) for the outsider who is unemployed because of a combination of bad government policies combined with short term incentives of financial traders and mortgage sellers? While insiders and outsiders may differ on what should be done, that something needs to be done to prevent the next crisis should be the real focus. Neither the “greedy capitalist” nor “neo-hippie-protester” depiction of others accomplishes the real goal.

No one here engages in capitalism?

Some say the occupiers are “anti-capitalist” but I suspect they (like all of us) really want a job that pays us for the value we provide rather than a revolution. Capitalism done right makes us better off not worse. Don’t agree? Imagine trying to live a week without engaging with capitalism. What will you wear or eat without trading or buying from a store? We may favor different versions of capitalism (as we do TV shows), but we don’t really oppose all capitalism as that is like opposing all TV.

The real conversation is one of setting the right incentives for workers, managers, regulators, and customers. The core problem of the financial crisis was individuals having short term incentives for taking large risks without any individual consequence for the downside of those risks. For a good explanation of this read The Big Short by Michael Lewis. I expect capitalists and protesters would find a lot to agree upon and start focusing on real solutions rather than stereotyping each other.

Perhaps this is the Bull needed on Wall Street?

Beyond Apple

By Marc Williams

Following Steve Jobs’ passing on October 5, countless articles, blogs, and remembrances have paid tribute to Jobs’ contributions to the technology industry. I could certainly join that chorus, given that I do so much of my online teaching for the BLS program from my iMac, iPad, and iPhone. I’m a dedicated and unabashed Mac user and I thank Steve Jobs for helping make life a little simpler through these brilliant gadgets.

Somewhat overlooked in the tributes to Jobs are his contributions as the owner/CEO of Pixar. Jobs purchased Pixar from Lucasfilm in 1986, which at the time was developing 3D animation hardware for commercial use. Pixar’s hardware development and sales business was not terribly successful and the company began selling off divisions and laying off employees.

During this period of struggle, Jobs was willing to consider a proposal from one of his employees, John Lasseter. Lasseter, an animator who had been fired from Disney and subsequently hired by Lucasfilm, had been experimenting with short films and advertisements, all completely animated by computer. Lasseter pitched Jobs on the idea of creating a computer-animated feature film. Such an endeavor would be tremendously risky for a company like Pixar, which had not been organized as a film studio. Not only did Jobs sign off on the idea, but he was able to secure a three-picture deal with Walt Disney Feature Animation. Jobs shifted the company’s primary focus to making movies.

The feature film Lasseter pitched to Jobs became Toy Story, and he went on to direct A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Cars, and Cars 2. Lasseter also served as executive producer for virtually every other Pixar film (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3) and he is now the Chief Creative Officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.

There’s no denying Lasseter’s genius but Pixar as we know it today would not exist without Steve Jobs. Jobs took a tremendous leap of faith, entrusting the company’s future to the brilliance of his collaborators.

A leader doesn’t necessarily have to be the person with the best idea; sometimes the leader simply must recognize the best idea in the room—and get out of the way. Harry Truman said, “it is amazing how much you can accomplish in life if you don’t mind who gets the credit.” The story of Pixar demonstrates that Steve Jobs fully understood this simple truth.

John Lasseter

“Steve Jobs was an extraordinary visionary, our very dear friend and the guiding light of the Pixar family. He saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply ‘make it great.’ He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity and love of life has made us all better people. He will forever be a part of Pixar’s DNA. Our hearts go out to his wife Laurene and their children during this incredibly difficult time.”

- John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer & Ed Catmull, President, Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios

Thinking, Adapting, and Thinking

By Marc Williams

Eric Ries

Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, has some bold ideas about entrepreneurship.  In a recent interview for Wired magazine online, Ries argues that old adage “right place at the right time” is not a formula for business success:

 “There was a study done in the early 20th century of all the entrepreneurs who entered the automobile industry around the same time as Henry Ford; there were something like 500 automotive companies that got funded, had the internal combustion engine, had the technology, and had the vision. Sixty percent of them folded within a couple of years.”

Ford, according to Ries, was simply better at adapting to changing circumstances than his competitors.  It wasn’t the quality of his original idea, which wasn’t at all unique, but rather his willingness to change his idea.

A contemporary example Ries uses is Dropbox, a file-sharing program that allows uses to sync files and folders online—and allows users to designate folders as public, private, or shared with only selected users.  Dropbox didn’t begin with a massive PR campaign—it started small, adapted to what its small customer base wanted, and experienced overwhelming growth because they continued to adapt.

http://www.justin.tv/widgets/archive_embed_player.swf
Watch live video from Startup Lessons Learned on Justin.tv

So what can teachers do to help prepare students for a world in which adaptability is key?  In my online courses in the BLS program at UNCG, I typically utilize at least one assignment that requires revision.  Sometimes it is easy to focus on obvious errors—mechanics, spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, et cetera.  When reading student writing, I challenge myself to look for the ideas and challenge my students to strengthen, support, or even reconsider those ideas.    In what other ways can teachers promote adaptability in the classroom?

Are You Ready for Some Football?

By Marc Williams

I’ll begin by confessing that I am among America’s truly die-hard football fans.  I follow football throughout the year, even though the season only lasts about four months.  Serious fans like me are thrilled this morning: the NFL’s 130+ day lockout appears to be ending today following months of intense negotiations.

During the past few months, analysts have criticized both owners and players in news articles and fans have sounded off on sports talk radio.  Given America’s economic struggles, how could these sides complain about having to share $9 billion in revenues?  While the owners initiated the lockout, most of the criticism I heard seemed to be directed at the “overpaid” NFL players.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, left, and NFL Players Association Director DeMaurice Smith, right.

Listening to talk radio over the past 130 days, I often heard fans suggesting, “the players should be more grateful–I’ll go play football for a fraction of what those guys make.”  Every time I listened to the radio, I heard someone cite his $30K salary, how hard he works, and how happy he’d be to play football for the minimum NFL rookie salary, which was $325,000 in 2010.  What many fans fail to realize is that these players earn a minimum of $325,000 because they have specific skills and physical attributes that are exceedingly rare and have found a way to capitalize on those traits.

Consider one of my favorite players, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, as an example.  In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt covered the first 40m of his record-breaking 100m run at a speed of 8.6m/second.  When Calvin Johnson was entering the 2007 NFL draft, he was timed at a similar distance at about 8.4m/second, only slightly behind Bolt’s pace. These numbers are especially notable since Bolt, the 100-meter world record-holder, weighs only 198 pounds while Johnson weighs almost 240 pounds. Further, Johnson is 6’5” and has a 42” vertical leap (four inches better than NBA star Kobe Bryant’s). Johnson, like most NFL athletes, possesses not only exceptional football skills but also a rare combination of size and athleticism.

While these physical attributes are indeed rare, many argue that twenty year-olds have no business earning so much money for simply playing a game.  After all, many of us go to school, earn degrees, work from the bottom-up in our chosen fields, taking years to earn promotions and raises, and never approach the $325,000 minimum NFL rookie salary.  Is this evidence that something is out of whack?

Shakespeare

Perhaps what is truly out of whack is the notion that education, job skills, and a lifetime of service should entitle one to fame or a generous salary.  Consider Shakespeare as an example.  Unlike most of the successful poets and playwrights of the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare was not college educated.  His success generated enormous jealousy from writers who had “paid their dues” through university education.  To this day, there are scholars dedicated to attributing Shakespeare’s work to other individuals from Francis Bacon to Queen Elizabeth herself, arguing that an uneducated son of a glove maker couldn’t possibly be the author of Hamlet and King Lear.

 In my BLS course on Shakespeare, we discuss this “authorship question,” a premise I dismiss as snobbery.  Perhaps Shakespeare was simply brilliant; an individual with exceptional skills who was creative enough to find a way to apply and capitalize on those skills.  Mozart composed his first opera when he was twelve years old—there is no accounting for that kind of genius.  Isn’t the same true of professional athletes? When we express jealousy about the financial success of professional athletes, are we jealous of their unique gifts or are we jealous because we haven’t figured out what to do with our own talents?

Usain Bolt breaks the world record in the 100 meters, Beijing 2008:

Calvin Johnson in action:

Is the Future of Racing a Thing of the Past?

By Jay Parr

NASCAR

As anyone who has made the mistake of taking I-85 past Concord on a race day knows, NASCAR is one of the largest professional sporting organizations in the country. Major events draw more than a hundred thousand spectators to the stands, and sometimes millions of viewers watching from home or their favorite sports bar. Total revenues are in the billions of dollars, and the revenues of the top teams are in the tens of millions of dollars apiece. It’s a huge business.

We tend to think of auto racing as being at the forefront of high-performance technology, but that’s not actually the case in NASCAR. The regulations in that organization dictate that the cars must be front engine and rear wheel drive, despite the fact that the street versions of those cars are almost all front-wheel drive. But it doesn’t stop there. The engines must have carburetors, not the fuel injection of most cars on the road today. They must be naturally aspirated, so they can’t have the turbochargers that are becoming so common in passenger cars today. They must have pushrod-operated valves, so they can’t even have the overhead cams found in a twenty-year-old Saturn. Far from being at the leading edge of engine technology, NASCAR engines use hundred-year-old technology that is arguably fifty years out of date.

Tour de France

Auto racing is not the only racing sport where the rules place big restrictions on the technology used. If you’ve ever watched the Tour de France or any other major bicycle race, you may have noticed that all the bikes look almost identical. That is not a coincidence, and it is not because the bike you see is the best configuration for performance. Nearly a century ago, shortly after the familiar diamond-framed “safety bicycle” took over popularity from the dangerous old high-wheeled “ordinary bicycle,” a Frenchman by the name of Charles Mochet designed the first commercially-produced recumbent bicycle. The rider sat back as if on a chaise lounge, with his feet stretched out in front of him and the rear wheel behind his back. It won several major races, and in 1934 it broke the one-hour world record when his rider covered 28 miles—and the wins and the record were all piloted by second-tier cyclists. At their very next meeting, the International Cyclist’s Union (UCI) decided that recumbent bicycles could not compete against diamond-framed bicycles in any major bicycle race. That is why you never see a recumbent bicycle in the Tour de France—despite the fact that they’re faster, more aerodynamic, more comfortable to race, and much safer in an accident.

Recumbent bicycles

In both of these racing venues—motorized and human-powered—political decisions have kept the sport from evolving toward superior technologies. The philosophy in both cases is to put the emphasis on human competition, but the technological ramifications reach far beyond the racetrack. In the past, the highly-funded and competitive environment of racing has led to major advances in both efficiency and safety. Your brake lights, rear-view mirrors, seat belts, and radial tires were all pioneered in race cars, as were many other features you take for granted, like the side-impact bars in your doors, the fuel injection that has doubled your gas mileage, and the variable timing advance that allows your engine to run efficiently at a wide variety of RPMs. Even on a dime-store bicycle, the gearing and brake technology were perfected in the racing world before trickling down to the kids’ beater bikes.

Restricting the natural advance of racing technology has a negative impact, not only on racing sports, but on the society as a whole. Consumer technology tends to mimic high-performance technology, and to benefit from high-tech advances in a trickle-down effect. Imagine how the world might look if the UCI had forbidden the chain-driven safety bicycle. Would the serious cyclists be teetering around on top of huge 54-inch wheels? Would we be afraid to teach our children to ride bikes for fear they might take a header and break their necks? Now, imagine it the other way, if the UCI had not forbidden the recumbent. Would most of us be cruising around on comfy lawn chairs? Would we stare in amusement when we saw one of those old dangerous head-first relics? Would our kids be more likely to land on a nice soft buttock instead of a fragile face or wrist when they dumped their bikes?

What if NASCAR technology had been allowed to develop unchecked? Pit stops happen on the clock, so it’s entirely conceivable that racing engineers would have poured a lot of attention into increasing fuel efficiency to minimize those stops. If they had been allowed to experiment unchecked, would we have race cars that could complete a 600-mile race on ten gallons of fuel? Imagine how that technology would trickle down to a little Nissan on the highway. Think about that next time you’re fueling up for that trip down I-85.

Cyclist Sam Whittingham exceeds 82 mph in a streamlined recumbent bicycle.

Dim Light and Other Hazards

By Marc Williams

About two years ago, I hurt my back.  I wasn’t doing anything extraordinarily physical–just some routine chores around the house.  The pain was significant and it lasted quite awhile.  After a few weeks of waiting for the injury to heal and for the pain to subside on its own, I went to the doctor, who referred me to a physical therapist.  I couldn’t believe that some simple chores around the house were causing me such trouble.  However, I learned from the physical therapist that the problem had not resulted from house work.  My injury was caused by bad posture.

The BLS program at UNCG is an online degree program and as an instructor, I spend nearly all of my working day in front of a computer.  While in front of the computer, my posture generally looks something like the image below.

Less than ideal posture.

But how can bad posture cause an injury like the one I experienced?  The key ingredient for me was time.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, my reliance upon a computer to do my job puts me in the 55% majority of Americans who use a computer at work.  However, my personal computer usage for work exceeds the three hours per day national average.  I’d estimate that my work activities demand roughly six hours per day staring at my computer screen, about double the national average.  But this level of use doesn’t make me unusual; the same Bureau of Labor Statistics study cited above shows a much higher rate of computer use among “managers and professionals,” (about 80%) and the rate of computer use among those with college degrees is also higher than the national average.    It seems that higher levels of academic and professional achievement correlate to computer use in the work place.

Paul Lieberstein (Toby, L) and Steve Carrell (Michael, R) on The Office.

As I considered how my computer reliance affected my health, I was reminded of one of my favorite television shows, The OfficeHere’s the episode, titled “Safety Training,” in which branch manager Michael Scott attempts to make office work seem dangerous–an obvious attempt to prove his masculinity to the warehouse staff who operate heavy machines.

H.R. representative Toby advises the employees to take hourly breaks from their computers to rest their eyes and he cautions about depression-related office conditions that include dim lighting.  Of course these health threats are exaggerated by Michael and dismissed by the warehouse staff.  While the examples are given in a comedic context, my experience suggests that computer work can indeed be tough on the body and mind.

After much experimenting, I’ve found that Toby’s advice on The Office is sound.  I try to get up from the computer every hour to stretch, move around, interact with real people whenever possible, and go outside.  I found that I needed exercises to strengthen my back and I use a few yoga positions to help negate the “hunchback” posture I use at my desk.  The routine could use some variety so I’m always looking for new ideas.  I’ve often wondered how my colleagues–and our students–deal with the effects of computer use.   Any tips?