Category Archives: innovation

Professor: College is a Rip-Off

Richard K. Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University whom I recently interviewed for a news story about a report from Georgetown U. that predicts employers will face a huge shortage of college grads to fill positions by 2018, has a decidedly unorthodox take on what ails higher education in today’s America.

Vedder is cofounder of the Center for College Productivity and Affordability, a nonprofit that advocates for a decidedly conservative approach to how colleges should operate. Vedder and his colleagues argue, in a series of editorials that have appeared in various magazines and newspapers which are  available on the organization’s website , that government funding (in the forms of Pell Grants, state subsidies to public colleges and universities, etc) has allowed academia to avoid the market-driven reforms that other industry sectors have been forced to undergo. Colleges continue to operate without regard to efficiency or expediency because they can, write Vedder et al.

Low-interest student loans, Pell Grants, and the like have the effect of shielding students and their parents from the true costs of college, they write. This translates into less market-driven pressure on colleges to aggressively adopt reforms (such as more online classes, fewer staff, greater use of technology to improve efficiency etc) that would make them more affordable.

Vedder argues for replacing state subsidies to colleges with direct vouchers to students. He also argues in favor of for-profit schools, such as DeVry University, saying that their continued growth and expansion will force nonprofit, public institutions such as the University of Michigan to become more market-oriented and to even, perhaps, privatize themselves.

I find Vedder’s views a bit extreme, but interesting nonetheless. Many students today graduate with a crippling debt load, and often go on to accrue more debt in grad school because they feel that’s their only route to a decent livelihood. And colleges can count on plenty more coming their way becasue we’ve drummed into kids that they must, MUST go to college if they want a decent job. Something’s askew here–in other countries, like Germany, it is NOT necessary to go to college in order to earn a decent income, and many parents often overlook the fact that  it’s not true in this country, either. Plumbers and electricians, for example, make decent wages and their jobs can’t be outsourced.  This is an area that’s due for a lot more examination, and viewpoints such as Vedder’s, radical though they may be, definitely add to the conversation.

Employees Sometimes Do Know Best

Before you stop reading this, thinking it’s some department-store promotional, hear me out.

The other day, I was in a Kohl’s Department Store madly searching for the right print in the right size in the little time I had. Taking my quest to the customer-service desk, thinking I’d probably be directed to another store (if I was lucky), I was directed instead to a telephone on the wall across from the desk. I picked it up and was immediately connected to a very friendly Kohl’ representative who quickly checked her “kiosk” of wares, found it and, while we were chatting, shipped it to my home, no shipping charge attached.

“This is our new service,” she told me. “If you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for in any of our stores, we can now direct you to this phone and you get it sent, no charge.” Misson over, headache abated, faith in your fellow humans temporarily restored. How simple.

“I’m impressed!” I told her. “I haven’t heard of this particular type of service before!”

“We came up with it ourselves, employees here at Kohl’s,” she said, sounding immensely proud. Some stores have installed computers in their customer-service departments, “but this just felt more personal; it made common sense,” she said. “We don’t think anyone else out there is doing this but us.”

In my old reporter mode, I immediately tried to track it down, thinking there might be an innovation case study for us in it somewhere. But the best James Barnes, Kohl’s’ manager of public relations, could give me was that the company is “very focused on implementing concepts that improve the customer experience and provide excellent customer service.” So, oh well, I guess I wasn’t going to get names — no what, why, where and when either.

I did come across this release, though, about a new book by the CEO of HCL Technologies, Vineet Nayar, pushing his notion that companies of the future need to shift their mind-sets and start relying on the good ideas of their employees when it comes to customer service, or fail. His book, Employees First, talks about solving much harder, more strategic problems around customer satisfaction by giving up the age-old notion that C-suiters and line leaders are where your solutions lie.

“Nayar argues,” the release says, “that the best way for companies to meet their customers’ needs is to stop making customers their top priority. Instead, companies should shift their focus to empowering employees to solve customer problems — in part by making management accountable to the employees who are the real creators of value.”

In Nayar’s own words: “Perhaps the biggest surprise for readers of my book will be that Western-style companies can achieve even greater success by making their approach to business more democratic. Companies with traditional top-down, pyramid-like hierarchies with rigid reporting structures make it very difficult for critical competitive information, garnered on the front line, to flow uphill to the C-suite, where strategic business decisions have traditionally been made.”

Kohl’s might be onto something here. Its employees certainly seem to be.