Kettering University President Robert McMahan says universities must change to meet the demands of the 21st century.
FLINT — Kettering University President Robert McMahan doesn’t sound like a lot of university presidents; then again, Kettering isn’t like a lot of universities.
As Bridge Magazine reported, graduates of the private school, located in the heart of economically depressed Flint, earn the fattest paychecks among grads of Michigan colleges. Majors are limited to business-friendly studies such as engineering and other STEM fields — not a surprise for a school called General Motors Institute until 1998. Its 2,300 students spend half their time on internships around the country rather than in classes.
So maybe it’s to be expected that when McMahan talks about the future of higher education, he talks about “pipelines” and “customers.”
McMahan talked to Bridge recently about Kettering, the challenges it faces attracting low-income students, and the changes he said he believes colleges must make to stay relevant in a changing world.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Bridge Magazine: Kettering isn’t the biggest or best known university in Michigan. But the return on investment — $1.6 million over a career — is huge despite the higher-than-average cost of attendance. What’s the primary difference between other schools and Kettering?
Robert McMahan: If you go to most colleges, you may have an internship in your junior winter [term] or a summer program. That’s fine and good, but that’s not what we do. Our students are in an internship rotation from the time they begin their freshman year. They're here 12 weeks, then they're 12 weeks in a professional placement. They are employees, they are expected to perform and comport themselves as employees. By the time they graduate, they have 2½ years professional experience; they come out fully formed and ready to go.
Bridge: What is Michigan getting wrong about higher education policy?
McMahan: From a public policy perspective, we're not educating people to be informed consumers. We are telling them that all of these [college] options are equivalent, and produce the same outcome, and they don’t.
Not all these institutions produce outcomes with the same return on investment, and that's a hard argument to make, because it runs counter to the public narrative that a lot of our policymakers are espousing.
Bridge: You’re suggesting that just getting more high school grads into college is only part of the answer — that families should look at how graduates fare (and what percent of students graduate) at different campuses?
McMahan: It’s more nuanced than cost, it’s a return-on-investment argument.
Bridge: That’s not easy. Return-on-investment over the course of a career is great from Kettering, but the net cost for students from low-income families (those families earning under $30,000 a year) at Kettering is $29,000 a year. How do you overcome that sticker shock from low-income families?
McMahan: We have all sorts of mechanisms to enhance affordability for students, plus a student will typically earn over the course of their education here $60,000 to $70,000 from their (paid internship) placements.
But what we find is, students look at Kettering, see the tuition and they stop. If we can engage them, we can actually show them how this is possible.
Bridge: Michigan is below the national average in the percentage of adults with post-high school credentials or degrees and, not coincidentally, we’re below the national average in median income. What can Michigan do to turn things around?
McMahan: I was talking to a gentleman who's involved with manufacturing at General Motors, and he said ‘We don't have any production inventory, it’s all on trucks. It’s a supply chain. … If you go to that same company and say ‘What's your biggest problem in preparing for the future,’ they will almost universally say, ‘talent.’
Why do we treat our most critical resource as a hunting and gathering problem rather than a supply chain problem? Talent is a supply chain problem. Talent is a pipeline, and it starts not in college or 12th grade, it starts at sixth grade, it starts at fifth grade, it starts way early. And the sooner that we as a state and a nation recognize that talent is implicitly a pipeline, the better we will be at satisfying our customers.
Bridge: Aren’t students the customers of universities, rather than companies?
McMahan: I would argue that the person who hires the student is the customer, or the graduate school that accepts the student is the customer, because they're actually defining the value of the services being rendered by the university.
A lot of academics bristle at that notion, because they say, ‘We're a liberal arts institution, we're not vocational, we are training the mind.’ I have a degree in physics and I have a degree in art history, I understand that dichotomy. I'm a very big proponent of liberal arts education, with this caveat: At the end of the day, the value of what we're doing is being defined externally, and the market is signaling to us that they do not (value a traditional college experience). What we are doing is increasingly not relevant. We are not supplying them (companies) with what they need. And that is going to drive a wholesale disruption of the higher education industry in the United States.
Bridge: It sounds as if you are questioning the future viability of traditional universities.
McMahan: Universities are in the business of selling degrees, selling that imprimatur [of] ethereal value. A university degree is a proxy for a set of skills. As an employer I have a reasonable confidence that somebody who has that degree has these attributes. If they don’t, more and more companies are going to provide their own education (like General Motors did for decades at a place called General Motors Institute).