Kettering University president: College is ‘increasingly not relevant’

Robert McMahan

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).

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Wed, 02/19/2020 - 7:56am

He’s so full of it. Kettering is down in enrollment because of his bad management.

Wed, 02/19/2020 - 11:01pm

I would like to point out a few falsities in this article as well. Kettering costs $40,000 a year (50k for the first year required to stay in the dorms). And my total earnings from my co-op experience will end up around $50k. The only companies which will pay what is stated are the big 3, which are a small percentage of the co-ops.

Another topic, Kettering required me to spend $600 of my own money on a senior design project which I did not get to keep. Even when we tried to contest the professor's requirements for a set of spare components (about $400) we got no where.

If that wasn't enough I haven't graduated yet and they are asking for donations from students to get a special set of cords for graduation.

The co-op experience is much better than the academic terms. Note that the co-op is the reason for the great return on investment. The University has little to no regard to the student's mental or financial health from my perspective.

Wed, 02/19/2020 - 8:40am

Well finally! Someone besides me is suggesting that companies could train people themselves if the public education institutions aren't doing it. I figure that if a business wants a person with certain skills they, not the general public, should pay for that. A lot of what is called education these days is really training in skills. For example, I have met several engineers who displayed little ability of critical thinking on social issues. It was clear that doing research was not part of their education. Discerning truth also appeared to be a novel experience. They did speak very well about physical things and scientific facts.
None of these particular engineers had studied much in the liberal arts.

Wed, 02/19/2020 - 9:04am

Education is structured as linear: K-12, freshman-senior in college, graduate degree, post doc. At some point it's designed to end with the next progression being working career.

The problem with this model is that many of the skills learned become obsolete.

The Kettering model (structured cycling work-study) works for 4 years but is then abandoned.

Maybe a better model would be lifetime structured cycling work-study for all of us.

Wed, 02/19/2020 - 2:58pm

The assumption is that you are learning new skills, advancements and approaches while you are working. College was just the foundation to get you in the door and give indication that you have the needed aptitude and interest to get you that far. Businesses are hesitant to invest that much since they don't know how long you'll be there.

Sun, 02/23/2020 - 2:14pm

If college is just "the needed foundation to get you in the door and give indication that you have the needed aptitude and interest to get you that far" then it's time to devise a much quicker and less expensive way to provide that!
From reading and listening to the news I have learned that many companies cannot find people with the specific skills they want. Now if it is not specific skills but an entire education in a certain field of knowledge, then the company might find this education too expensive. (The student would benefit more than the company and in more ways than just income.) However, it is quite possible for companies to find people with not quite enough of the knowledge or skills that they want. This is when the company could pay for it themselves, even if it means paying for some university classes. I know Ford has done this and as part of the deal the new employee had to commit to working for 3 years with Ford. That was an affordable investment. It can be done.

Wed, 02/19/2020 - 9:59am

I’m not sure I buy the argument that companies not the public should pay for higher education. The end reason anyone gets an education is to get a better job. When one starts pursuing a higher education, where that person will eventually work is mostly unknown. Yes, the trades do run apprentice programs that teach the trade, and will usually hire the graduates of such a program, but for other fields like engineering, or medicine, or education to name a few, the job may depend a lot on where is it in proximity to my spouses’ job, or where do I really want to live. And a lot of technical training exposes the student to many fields, while the work environment is very narrow expertise.

When someone says that internships are very desired, that is very true. As an interviewer at a major corporation, I always valued an intern assignment very highly, even if that assignment was only remotely related to what we did in our workplace. After all,math is math, and physics is physics no matter where one works. It always applies and the student has learned work habits and problem solving skills that are applicable.

In selecting a field, not everyone has the ability or the desire to teach, or be a doctor, or an engineer, or a finance person, or a lawyer. Some have to accept the fact that they will not make as much money as others.

Wed, 02/19/2020 - 10:22am

I tend to agree. The supply chain education model is an interesting idea. The sticking point is do typical college degrees fit the talent demands. I submit learning to learn should be the overall goal. Many students chase the good education mantra with a laser focus on a name brand university degree. Taking out huge amounts of debt only to discover that choice is at odds with their natural motivating interests. So they drop out or abandon their teen age chosen profession. A better scheme would be a truly universal college credit transfers for students - attend anywhere and get a bachelor's with far less debt. Then apply for post grad schooling when and where their talents bloom.

David Forsmark
Wed, 02/19/2020 - 11:23am

I'm waiting for Dave Waymire to jump in and call this guy an anti-education ignoramus.

jane thomas
Sat, 02/22/2020 - 4:05pm

I won't call Mr. McMahan names, but he shows little understanding of what constitutes a real education. And I find that shocking, given his position. Further, companies do need "talent," and part of that "talent" will consist of being able to think critically. Especially in the increasingly complex world of business.

Paul Jordan
Wed, 02/19/2020 - 11:47am

Dr. McMahan ably represents the view that the economy IS society, and higher education's purpose is to narrowly prepare young people for roles in the economic machine.
The truth is, though, that the purpose of our lives is more than simply producing wealth for our employers. It takes more than career technical education to provide students with a foundation to live a rich full life.

Lynne T
Wed, 02/19/2020 - 5:55pm

This guy assumes that the only purpose of education is making money. Yes, people need to be able to support themselves, but the primary purpose of public education (K-12) is to make sure we have citizens who can make our democracy work effectively. I'm not sure K-12 education ever did that, but it sure hasn't in the last 50 years or more! We only need to look at the current state of the country to see the truth of it. So ideally, post-secondary programs would at least try to make up for some of this, but they don't. Does McMahan make sure that everyone in his college can manage personal finances, assess the quality of information, understand the work done by people outside their own fields and social circles? It doesn't sound like it. He just takes students who want to learn very narrowly but also have reasonable aptitudes and previous education in his fields of interest, and create mindless workers who will producc well but stay in their places. Lovely.

Ben W. Washburn
Wed, 02/19/2020 - 7:34pm

McMahon makes a point which is more particularly relevant to the question of making a bigger public subsidy for our state universities.
When I attended U of M in the late 50's and the Wayne State Law School in the early 60's, the State was paying for 75% to 80% of the cost of my university education. And, my major at U of M was renaissance intellectual history. But, back then, the overall economy was expanding; after the destruction of most foreign industrial capacity by WWII, the U.S. was supplying 85% of the world's consumer needs. Take-home pay even after taxes was rapidly rising. It was a win-win-win-win time.
Since about 1980, however, we have had a lose-lose-lose-lose economy. At least 3/4ths of that is due to international competition, and not just to the depredations of the 1%. Most folks have to seriously ask: Why should I put even one more of my shrinking dollars into this endeavor? Why should I have to concern myself with helping younger folks lead a more fulfilling life?
But, we should be concerned with helping this next generation become better equipped to thrive in this newer international milieu. That is something which could redound to all of our common benefit, and would be worth our common investment.
With regard to leading a more fulfilling life, what is to keep folks who are earning more and more from investing some of their earnings into lifelong education???

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 8:53am

Ben in spite of you being one of a very few interesting and fair-minded liberals to appear here, I fail to see the case you make for increased state aid to the U's. Your side decries the fact that the average student loan debtor owes $35,000, (an amount commonly seen for car loans!) but then insists that a degree is absolutely required because the graduate will see a 100% increase in earnings. This seems a pretty good deal as is, so what's the problem? Verses the state going back to 75% aid to U's, so our graduate can take their debt free, taxpayer funded degree and move out to Seattle to work for Amazon? This only breaks down when a student spends considerably more for a degree with little marketable value. This is a different problem. As a curious person I can appreciate learning just for its own sake but I don't expect the state to pay to help me scratch that itch … other than maybe a library.

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 2:32pm

The point to producing more folks with degrees and more importantly career orientated training is to have development in the local areas. People move, if they can anyway, where there is opportunity. Right now the most opportunity is in Silicon Valley, Seattle, DC - Northern Virginia area, Atlanta, parts of Texas, and parts of Florida. Yet a more educated populace usually leads to more ideas and more development to usher in new areas of opportunity. I see so many people talking about saving Detroit yet I question what are they attempting to save. Detroit is how it is because there were lots of auto manufacturing jobs here. When those jobs died down most folks should have took the hint and attempted to find new opportunity. Yet for some reason that drive which urged people to move to Detroit isn't present to keep folks from staying in Detroit. I bring it up because it's all connected. People aren't meant to stay stationary. We're meant to migrate around that's why even when cities and nations began humanity sought war with each other. They wanted to expand they wanted to keep moving for opportunity. If they had the attitudes people have now I am sure most of humanity would still be concentrated around the African continent.

Thu, 02/20/2020 - 8:02pm

Your connection between more people with degrees and prevalence of opportunities is thin to nonexistent. Opportunity and growing industries are much more organic than just having a concentration of formally educated residents. And sure people move to areas of opportunity although this has changed to the point where we're moving less than any time in recent history but I'd bet big money that the majority of employees at these marquee companies are originally from somewhere else.

Sun, 02/23/2020 - 1:52pm

As to the specific point about people once moving to Detroit and now not moving from it, there is a rather simple answer. The people who stay do not see opportunity elsewhere that would provide enough income to afford the move, give any reliability for continuing employment, and make up for the loss of home ownership. If a person had enough money to pay for more training or education one might see more opportunity elsewhere but not many people in Detroit have this. Those who did may have already left. (These are only the first reasons that come to mind.)
When people moved to Detroit, there was opportunity for all of these. A willingness to work hard and learn on the job was about all that was necessary. (After a while housing became far less promising if you were not white.)

Sun, 02/23/2020 - 1:52pm

As to the specific point about people once moving to Detroit and now not moving from it, there is a rather simple answer. The people who stay do not see opportunity elsewhere that would provide enough income to afford the move, give any reliability for continuing employment, and make up for the loss of home ownership. If a person had enough money to pay for more training or education one might see more opportunity elsewhere but not many people in Detroit have this. Those who did may have already left. (These are only the first reasons that come to mind.)
When people moved to Detroit, there was opportunity for all of these. A willingness to work hard and learn on the job was about all that was necessary. (After a while housing became far less promising if you were not white.)

jane thomas
Sat, 02/22/2020 - 3:49pm

Though McMahan makes an important point regarding preparing students for the changing world we live in, he completely misses the most important points about a college education.
(1) First of all, he is too vague about what he believes would constitute a more "relevant" education in a changing world, and his simplification regarding "not providing companies with what they need" is chilling.
(2) His view that what is considered "relevant" is determined "externally" misses at least half (if not more) of the equation: that people's needs determine what companies need to a large extent. This attitude suggests an unfortunate oligarchic mentality that does not serve people or societies well.
(3) Most importantly, he totally misses the one fundamental thing that most college educations provide: critical thinking. In other words, how to take information and determine what it means, who it favors and who it does not favor, whether it is logical or not, and whether it is, in fact, true. Virtually all disciplines at the college level require this skill, whether it's the sciences or the liberal arts.

Having taught at the university level, I believe that few college presidents share his view. And I find it shocking that someone in that position would show such a superficial understanding of what education actually is.

jane thomas
Sat, 02/22/2020 - 3:59pm

I am shocked that a university president anywhere has such a superficial view of what education actually is. Though McMahan could make a point about training students for a changing world, he is vague about what exactly that means, and his claim that companies determine what is relevant education completely misses the point.

Furthermore, one fundamental skill taught by colleges and universities is critical thinking: Is the information being presented true? Logical? Who does it favor and who does it not favor? What is the overall effect of the information? Virtually all college disciplines require this skill and teach it, both the sciences and the liberal arts. Companies need "talent" who can do that, especially in the growing complexities of manufacturing (and services). Finally, all societies need a populace capable of thinking critically in order to prevent totalitarianism of the kind McMahan references so casually.

Sun, 02/23/2020 - 1:44am

I got a bachelor of science degree from a major state university (not in Michigan) in the early 1980s. I freely admit that my liberal arts education opened my eyes to issues and points of view I had never considered or been exposed to, and provided a multi-cultural experience I would never have had if I had stayed in the very rural environment in which I was raised. It definitely made me a more "well-rounded person," a phrase popular back in the day, and it did open the door to job opportunities that required a degree. But as I look back on my career, I believe most of what made me successful in my career, and led me to become a productive citizen heavily involved in my community through volunteer work, came much less from my education, and more from my work experience and the values instilled in me by my parents. My parents, especially my dad, encouraged me to never stop learning from whatever situation or circumstances I found myself in. How right they were!

We must stop clinging to this nostalgic view of higher education as four years on a bricks and mortar campus full of beautiful buildings ("those hallowed halls"), frat parties, football games, and required classes that have little to no relevance to most students once they graduate. I believe that if universities were to streamline their course offerings, focus more on internships and international study, since like it or not, we do live in a global economy, and offer fewer degrees in fields with limited earning potential (art history, anyone?), a college education would cost less and better prepare graduates for life after college. Yes, we still have a need for people with degrees in philosophy, music, foreign languages, etc., but can we please be realistic about the number of jobs in some fields? I love my niece dearly, but after six-plus years in college and three degrees (music and two foreign languages), almost 20 years later she has never worked in a field even closely related to her degrees, and is now a stay-at-home "mom" to two cats. She and her husband are financially very comfortable, and she is a very smart lady actively involved in her community through a lot of volunteer work, but if I had been the one footing the bill I would have seriously questioned the value of my investment. I firmly believe she could have achieved the same result without setting foot in a college classroom.