In his new book The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us, journalist Paul Tough dishes up a whirlwind of details on the successes and failures of American higher education.

From the resulting back-and-forth with the College Board to Tough’s depiction of a college process that results in deeply disappointing outcomes for far too many students, the book has driven some notable headlines.

As Matthew Chingos documents in his review of the book for Education Next, the book’s lack of a unifying argument or set of solutions reflects the reality that these are hard problems to solve more than a shortcoming of the book. “The final paragraph of the book correctly notes that government alone cannot solve the problems of a decentralized higher education system. Instead, ‘pressure for change has to come from many directions at once,’ from students, parents, educators, and citizens who just have to decide how to pull the ‘levers for change [that] are all around us.’”

Chingos’ observation and Tough’s argument that change must come from many directions at once is a critical one and resonates with arguments that Bob Moesta and I advance in Choosing College, which perhaps provides the coda to Tough’s volume of college twists, tales, and travails.

Bob and I ultimately concluded that one key reason the education system doesn’t deliver writ large is that we as individuals are not choosing in accordance with the progress that we desire in our particular circumstance. In other words, we are not demanding good value.

Value is the outcome one desires—in this case meaning the knowledge, skills, relationships, credentials, and so forth—divided by the resources spent attaining it—meaning time, money, energy, and the like. To make education better, we all need to be better consumers.

Having students first ask themselves why they are seeking more education—or why should they—rather than starting with the question of which college they should go to or how to apply is the first step toward becoming better consumers. Being armed with insights around the progress they are seeking and their current context, Bob and I argue, is critical to making their subconscious motivations conscious so they can make a better choice.

Education is ultimately a two-sided process, similar to trying to find a spouse. The progress someone is seeking must overlap with the progress a potential partner is seeking. If you’ve heard the saying, “In politics, as in love, timing is everything,” the same is true in education.

There is a match-making process on both ends where a given education program may be outstanding at something, but for it to be the right program for a given individual, it has to be the right fit at that time and circumstance in her life.

Taken in that vein, an individual’s struggles of the sort that Tough chronicles are not something to be ignored, but to be harnessed to allow all of us—individuals, schools, and society—to innovate and make progress. But it starts with individuals knowing where they are in their lives, what they want, and how to articulate it, and for an education program to state clearly when and how it can and cannot help any given individual. And that’s a big change.

What’s problematic is that neither side today is speaking the right language. Schools must understand what students are really trying to do, and students must understand what schools can provide. If we can facilitate the conversation in society—between the lifelong learner, families, employers, and universities—then we can help improve education everywhere.

Only then can we ensure that education delivers on its promise of helping people build their passions, fulfill their human potential, and live a lifetime of productive struggle and happiness.

Last week while in San Francisco speaking about Choosing College, an employee at Entangled Solutions asked me a thoughtful question. Is it possible, she asked, that as more alternatives to higher education emerge in the years ahead, might the number of “Jobs to Be Done” for which students hire colleges and universities actually decline? As in, right now people hire traditional colleges for certain “Jobs to Be Done” because they don’t know where else to turn, but with a better sense for why they are going coupled with more options, they might turn to more appropriate options over time—which could, in turn, allow colleges and universities to better focus on where they are best suited to serve students.

It’s a thought-provoking question. For it to become a reality, individuals will ultimately need to become better consumers. As Bob has said, that means they will need to understand why they are doing what they are doing so that they can make better choices to make progress, and we can be a better society with less waste in the world.

As the world and surrounding context changes, to transform education in a positive way, it will become vital that individuals become better consumers able to take control of their education so that we can all be and do better. 


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.