May 9, 2016
College Readiness
Dan Rosensweig, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Chegg, shared findings from research by Chegg on which college readiness skills are keys to improving student outcomes as a keynote speaker at the ASU+GSV Summit two years ago. In an interview afterwards, Dan discussed his unique perspective and offers ways to improve student outcomes.
Greg Jarboe
Which College Readiness Skills Are Keys To Improving Student Outcomes?

Two years ago, I interviewed Dan Rosensweig, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Chegg, after he shared some new research by Chegg at the ASU+GSV Summit on which college readiness skills are the keys to improving student outcomes. The findings are as counter-intuitive today as they were back then.

Now, this blog’s style guide says I should refer to him as “Rosensweig” on second reference, but since we worked together for 11 years at Ziff-Davis from 1988 to 1999, I’m going to call him “Dan”. He brings successful, high-growth consumer business experience to Chegg. After leaving Ziff-Davis, Dan served as Chief Operating Officer at Yahoo! President and Chief Executive Officer of Guitar Hero.

Before Dan’s breakfast keynote, the organizers of the Summit ran a video of recent graduates, who spoke about their experience in college and how it translated into the workforce. As one college graduated said, “No one ever told me ‘Make a four-year plan’ except for my dad and because he was my dad I didn’t listen to him even though it was the best advice that I got.”

This was the perfect introduction to Dan’s perspective on the disconnect between college readiness skills and improving student outcomes. Here’s an edited transcript of his remarks:

“Hi, I’m Dan Rosensweig and good morning. I want to talk about … improving student outcomes.… By the way that lady up there who said ‘I wish I’d listened to my father,’ I have a 21-year-old and an 18-year-old and I’ve sent that to both my daughters who are in college right now. And they said, ‘When I’m here age, I’ll think about it.’ I do not think the American dream is dead. In fact, I think that even the concept that the American dream could ever die is ridiculous. I think that America always runs into challenges because our enthusiasm, our energy, the things we invent outpace for a short period of time our ability to address those issues and we go through a transition. And then we use the tools, the technology, and the things that are invented in that time to move forward. But for me at Chegg the most important thing is to shed a light on what is the issue. We talk about ‘Is the American dream alive or well?’ We talk about a skills gap. We talk about that there are four million jobs, two-and-a-half million graduates, and why aren’t we giving those graduates jobs? And so what we embarked on was a comprehensive study that’s more than a projectable sample to be able to understand what matters and what doesn’t matter.”

Dan said, “So, let’s talk about what the issues are. As the guy who used to run Yahoo! it kills me to show Google’s search engine, but I’m declaring the American dream may be alive but Yahoo!’s search business compared to Google is not. But this is interesting. So, those of you who use Google may realize that when you type in (words in the search box) they already have a chip in your head so they’ve pretty much predicted what you’re going to type. So, if you type in ‘is college’ look at the first thing that comes up. If it comes up first, it means it is the most searched on term in that category. So, we’ve got a really interesting situation going in this country where now the very first thing that people are searching on when they type ‘is college’ is ‘is it worth it’? Then, you see ‘is it hard’, ‘is it tax deductible’, ‘is it for everyone’, ‘is it fun’ – that’s probably my daughters. And then ‘is college worth the money’. This is a real question that for the first time in my lifetime … is not something that a few people say. It’s actually something that increasing loud minorities are beginning to ask.”

He continued, “So, we decided to go find out from each of the major constituents how they think about college. So, we asked students why they go to college. It shouldn’t surprise anybody that the number one reason why students said they went to college was to get a good job. Seventy percent of students say they go to college to get a good job. They think it is a step in a process to go get a job. That is not surprising.”

He said, “However, this is what actually happens. Almost 13 percent unemployment among recent grads, 42 percent said their jobs did not require a college degree. I think we’re creating the barista economy. How many of you go to Starbucks and your barista just graduated college? Exactly. Well, I think you have to go to college to figure out the drinks that I make there. But this is a real issue. Forty-two percent said it wasn’t worth it in their own minds in their first jobs. Forty percent – and this is important to understand also – said they did not get a job in their major. This means all the time, energy, money they spend, money they borrowed around learning a subject (was wasted). Forty percent of them did not in the area where they’re supposed to have spent four years learning. And of course this one we all know. There’s a trillion dollars in student loan debt. The average student graduates – and you heard it in that video – with $30,000 in debt. So, what we’ve got is unemployed, underemployed, and employed in a job that you didn’t prepare for and substantial debt. So, 70 percent think they’re going to college to get a good job and this is actually what’s happening to them.”

Dan observed, “I’m not the only one to notice. You’re not the only ones to notice. These are the headlines – very recent, all from the last few weeks and months from significant publications that actually create a dialogue around subjects. Right now all major press is beginning to cover the fact that students are going with one expectation. They’re coming out with another reality. And we don’t have a solution to it.”

He continued, “So, we decided to talk to all the people who are affected by this. We talked to current college students. We talked to educators at both two- and four-year colleges. And we talked to employers of recent grads. And this is a projectable sample. It goes across community colleges, four-year colleges, top 100 colleges, state schools. It doesn’t matter. We have all the data from every single sample size.”

Dan said, “Here’s what we asked the student: Why did you go to college? How prepared were you for the working world? And whose job do you think is it to teach you the skills to be ready for your job?”

He said, “We asked those that are paid to teach these students: Why do you think students go to college? Whose job is it to teach them those very same skills? And how well prepared do you think your graduates are?”

Dan said, “Then, of course, we asked those people who we would like to hire them. Now, I fit into all the categories. My mom was a public school teacher for 39 years. I’m an employer. And I’m the father of two college age daughters. So, I could answer from all three of these angles right now. So, as an employer, we ask the same questions. What’s the primary purpose of a degree in your mind who is hiring recent grads? Whose job do you think it is to teach these students those skills that you claim to need? And how well prepared were those new hires once you hired them?”

He continued, “So, we went through all the major constituents except parents. So, let the finger pointing begin. And this is the crux of the real problem. We all know there’s an issue. That’s not surprising anybody. We all think we know what that issue is. But when you talk to the different constituents who are actually engaged right now – it’s their life or their job or their responsibility – they do this: (point the finger at someone else).”

Dan said, “So, if you ask a student what they’re focused on when they go to college the top three boxes say it all. They think they’re going to college to get a better job, to get the skills necessary to get a job, and to prepare themselves to have a great earning career. That should not surprise anybody.

He continued, “Let’s go to the next group: Educators. The two least important things to educators are the two most important things to today’s students. In other words, educators agree that their job is to prepare people for long-term careers. It’s just not to prepare you for your first job. They think it’s to prepare you to be a great citizen, to be a critical thinker, to be a big thinker. And the two least important things to educators are job-ready grads and grads with greater earning potential. So, now we’ve got a real situation where students have an expectation. The payer is saying, ‘Here’s why I go’. The person they pay is saying ‘Here’s why we think you should come.’ That is a real issue.”

Dan continued, “When we go to employers, they want ‘em both. No surprise. Welcome to America. I want it all. They want somebody who is ready right now and they also want somebody who is ready 10 years from now. So, the situation that we see is that we’ve got three constituents. One’s coming with one expectation. Those that they’re coming to get taught by have a different expectation. And those that we hope hire those that are coming out of that situation have a completely different expectation.”

He observed, “So, what we have is a skills gap and an expectations gap. Students say they go to get a good job. Educators say they want to create strong critical thinkers. And employers said we want ‘em both.”

Dan emphasized, “To me that is the crux of the problem. Until we acknowledge, until we shed light on the fact that there is a completely different set of expectations from the three major constituents we won’t fix it. The fixing it is not as difficult as fixing the culture of misalignment in our opinion. So, whose job is it to fix it?”

He said, “So, we asked all three constituencies again. Eighty percent of students think it’s up to someone else to teach them the skills. That’s remarkable to me. Only 17 percent of students think that it’s their job to learn it on their own. Because they think they’re borrowing money or they’re using their parents’ money or they’re getting a job and paying for college on their own and it’s someone else’s job to teach them. And it’s not even like a doubt. It’s not even 50-50. They think that’s what they’re supposed to be getting.”

He continued, “When we ask the educators – to their credit – half of them believe it’s actually their responsibility. That means half of them don’t think it’s their responsibility. That is a remarkable number. So, if you’re paying to go to school – whatever it is, $10,000, $20,000, $60,000 now at some schools – you’re a student and you don’t think it’s your job to teach you the skills. You’re the educator and half of you don’t think it’s your job to teach them the skills.”

He remarked, “And what do employers say? Once again, it won’t surprise you. Seventy percent of employers said, ‘It ain’t my problem. I just want them ready.’ So, you’re begging to see in my opinion – in Chegg’s opinion – what the real problem is. The real is we have three constituents all involved in the same process and nobody sees the problem in the same way. That is the biggest gap. It’s the expectations gap of what you’re supposed to go for, what you learn when you get there, what you’re supposed to be taught, who is supposed to teach you, and what the expectations are of those who are supposed to hire you.”

Dan summarized, “So, there is complete misalignment. Complete misalignment. And it’s stunning. As an employer – I’ve run large companies, I’ve run small companies – and what I’ve seen happen and those of you who are employers may have also seen happen in the last 20 years (is) training programs have gone away. We claim we don’t have the time or the money. We’re all about productivity and efficiency. So, rather than train we just want to pay the people that already know how to do it. And college graduates are not yet ready to quote-unquote ‘know how to do it.’ And so for us, what we identify what the problem is, this is the problem we think needs to be fixed.”

He said, “So, there’s all this debate going on now, which is: ‘Does everybody in America need to go to be a coder?’ ‘Does everybody need to be an engineer?’ So, I’ve worked at and run many Internet companies. We need a lot of engineers. We also need finance people, marketing people, business people, product people, deal people – the same as any company that’s ever been built. So, we went and looked at a thousand entry-level jobs and all we did was use technology to crawl these websites and ask: ‘What are the most important skills that are listed under entry-level jobs from employers who are seeking entry-level students – that is students who have recently graduated. And it doesn’t matter if it’s engineering or IT or if it’s accounting, medical, sales or training. What is surprising to some is that you need all the liberal arts education that people tout, employers actually want. In fact, the number one thing across every one of those or close to the number one thing across every one of these is communication skills. That is not an engineering skill. That is not a coding skill. It’s a human skill. That is exactly why people go to college. That is exactly one of the core things that people try to teach. How do you communicate? And how do you communicate in more than 140 characters and not via text? So, those of you who have kids my age, when I took my oldest daughter to go to college, we had a three-hour drive and my wife had me take the ‘don’t text and drive rule’ so I had my phone on the seat. I got to Washington, D.C., and turned it on and had 15 texts from my daughter who was sitting right next to me, who had not said a word. That is not communication, okay. She thinks its communication. I don’t think it’s communication. What is interesting here is look at what you need. They want you to do MS Office. Now, it’s not that they love Microsoft. It’s not even that they think it’s Microsoft Office. It’s that they want you have the basic tools and skills that are contained in Microsoft Office. They want you to be able to do a presentation. They want you to be able to do a spreadsheet. They want you to be able to do word processing. They want you to be able to type.”

He continued, “So, when I went to high school, we had to learn to type. Today, these are the basic skills that students need in addition to what they learn in the current curriculum on college campuses. I’m not one of those people who argue that teaching people liberal arts is bad. I think it’s marvelous. Both of my daughters go to liberal arts schools. I went to a liberal arts school. Most of my executives went to a liberal arts school. Most of the people I know who are CEOs in Silicon Valley all went to liberal arts schools. None of them – unless they were founders – were engineering majors. It doesn’t matter which company they’re at. It can be Adobe, it can be eBay, it can be LinkedIn, it can be Facebook, it can be Airbnb. None of them were engineering majors. They were liberal arts majors. But you know what else they could do? They could do this (pointing at the list of basic technical proficiency)” These are the entry-level skills that you need. As an example, when you look down here – data analytics and database queries and manipulation. How many of you think you know what that is? (A show of hands.) Okay, for those of you who don’t, it’s very simple. When I came out of college to do marketing I needed to know how to write a headline. I worked with Greg Jarboe, who is right there. We did direct mail, right? If we could get a two-and-one-half percent response we were heroes. We bought the same lists as everybody else but if your headline was better somebody opened it.  Today, data manipulation and data analytics is Marketing 101. That is understanding today’s marketing. I can’t hire you unless you can query a database. I don’t care if you can code. I don’t care if you’re an engineer. But if you can’t get access to the data you’re useless. If you look at spreadsheet software, I can’t hire anybody from liberal art to go to my finance team if they’re not able to manipulate a spreadsheet. It’s that simple. So, these are the basic technical proficiency skills in addition to the kind of curriculum that we do teach that employers want right now. And that’s across every job category.”

Dan said, “All agree that we need to supplement what’s being taught in the class in other ways. This one happens to be online courses. You can see that it doesn’t matter if it’s an educator or an employer. A student doesn’t want to do any more work, by the way. Does that surprise anybody? But you see everybody agrees that what we’re being taught isn’t enough to get you your first job. And many educators feel they’re not teaching you for your first job. They’re teaching you for your life. And there’s nothing wrong with that except it’s not the complete package that those who are going to college need to have in order to get jobs today.”

He observed, “Many students, even though they don’t want to, are already taking control of their lives. Would it surprise you to know that over 2 million students who are not in for-profit schools – meaning it’s not part of their current curriculum – have already taken an online course in the last 12 months? Nine in 10 say that they would take one if they knew which one to take and why it was valuable to them. And six in 10 say they’d actually pay for it. So, those that are looking for a business model ‘free’ isn’t exactly what people look for. They look for value. And I will pay for something if I think it will give me an advantage over somebody else or teach me the necessary skills to get me what I’m looking for.  So, students may not want to do the work, but they’re willing to do the work. They need help, though. “

He continued, “It’s not enough to put the burden on the student. Like I said, I have a 21- and an 18-year-old. I get that they’re old enough to vote. I get that they’re old enough to go to war. My 21-year-old has now informed me she’s old enough to legally drink. I get all that. But do I think that these folks, these kids who are 21 and 18 have any idea of what it’s like to compete in the global economy right now? Has there been anything in their lives that has caused them to make the right decisions about what to know and what to learn? My answer is: It’s not enough. They’re willing to do it. They don’t want to, but they’re willing to. They’re willing to put out the time, the energy, the money but it’s not enough if we want to make the change that we need. Everyone has a role.”

Dan started to wrap up by saying, “So, here’s what we’re proposing. Hopefully, people will find this is something that’s doable…. I think the American dream is absolutely alive. I’m the product of it. Typical American story – immigrant grandparents, went to public school, went to a four-year college, never went to business school, at 40-years-old I decided I was going to bet on myself rather than depend on somebody else, took a chance and was fortunate that it worked. It doesn’t work all the time – certainly not in my life. But the point is the opportunities are available. But we need to invest in our future and it’s not that much work to do it. And it’s not going to cost a fortune to do it because technology has reduced the cost, increased the access, made it personalized, made it in any language, made it real-time, made it any time day or night – it doesn’t matter where you live or where you’re from. The ability to learn what you need to learn is actually available today. We don’t have to solve for that. Five years ago we had to solve for that. People have solved that already. So, we’re proposing for institutions: Modernize your curriculum to make it job-relevant. If you’re a liberal arts school, that is a marvelous curriculum. But if you think back to the history of it, research it as I have, rhetoric was one of the big things. Rhetoric, when I was in college, was Speakers’ Corner in London and stand up and yell as loud as you can. That’s today’s Twitter. If a wide receiver on a football team can figure out how to use it, professors can. We need to modernize the curriculum to recognize what we mean by communication, what we mean by critical thinking, what we mean by decision-making, what we mean by analysis. The tools today are different. If we don’t acknowledge it we are going to fail the next generation. Because, you know what, that’s all they know. This generation has never known a day without the Internet, never known a day without TiVo, never known a day without the iPhone, without an app, without Facebook, without Twitter, without Whisper, without Secret, just keep going. So, we’re bring them into a situation where the institution doesn’t use those things and that’s all they’ve known. So, modernize the curriculum, incorporate today’s technology into the classroom. And if you don’t know how to teach it, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t assign it. Let people learn how to do presentations. Let them learn how to do spreadsheets. Why is that a bad thing? Next is ‘invest in career services.’ This is probably the biggest thing if I can leave you with anything today. We believe that if the curriculum in the classroom is going to evolve slowly – and that’s probably what’s going to happen – there’s no reason why the time and energy that we spend in admissions, in athletics, and all these other things should not be invested … in career services. Let’s make that an equal curriculum to everything else we do. The capability, the technology of amazing companies exists today to be able to teach these kids those skills. Whether they’re accredited or not is irrelevant. But if it’s available, if the college blesses it, if it encourages them, if it makes it available to them, they will take it. And appreciate that the long-term value of addressing the gap now may or may not save your institution. The fact of the matter is the number one reason people go is to get a job and employers don’t think you’re preparing them for jobs the value proposition of what you do is at risk. And don’t think that it isn’t. Not everybody is a top 100 school or one of the top 20 schools.”

He continued, “For employers – and many employers are starting to do this – work with the schools to help evaluate and create new curriculum. Tell them about the jobs that you plan to (create) in the next five to 10 years. Tell them about the skills that you need and help them teach those skills to students. We believe you should be generous with internships. Research proves you’re 61 percent more likely to get a job in the first six months after graduation if you’ve had at least one paid internship in your four years of college. My small company has 320 employees. We hire 25 interns every summer from high school and college. They have become some of our best employees and easily some of our best brand ambassadors. It is not expensive, it is not difficult and it changes the life of a student and your company. And take a chance on today’s student. Don’t be so cheap to think you want to hire the perfect student. If you know they’re not being taught some of those skills and you know these are smart students and aggressive and you know they’re willing to do it given them the curriculum once they’ve joined and they will take it. My god, if every employee in America can take a three-hour sexual harassment course why can’t we take three hours of Excel? It’s not hard to do. It’s not expensive. It’s scalable. It can all be done online. And it can all be done on someone’s own time.”

He said, “And for educators, my plea – my mom will probably kill me – is to modernize your curriculum so what you’re teaching matches the needs and the experiences that these students know. The fact of the matter is if you’re teaching like you taught five years ago it’s not how these students learn. They learn social, they learn collaborative, they use the Internet. It’s not cheating when people go to learn this stuff on their own. There’s more than one way to learn. Allow them to learn the way they learn. Keep close communication meaning if you want to help those who are less capable—just as smart, but not from backgrounds that are not as good, or strong, or supportive – stay in constant communication. This country keeps bring in students from overseas. Twenty-five percent of the Chinese students who come from overseas fail out not because they’re not smart enough, it’s because they have no sense of the culture and they have nobody to support them. Stay in touch with these students. You can do it. There’s technology that allows you to use text right not if you don’t want to give out your phone number. You can use a text that gives out an automated phone number to stay in contact with students in any grade today and their parents. Stay in touch with time and take the time to stay current with the new learning. The world is changing.”

He added, “And for students, nobody gives a shit about you but you. That’s my great daddy advice. My good friend John Donahoe, the CEO of eBay, said his life turned when he realized that nobody is more invested in his future than him. And if you don’t invest in your own future why would anybody else invest in it. It’s your life. You own it. Take control. Understand that since 40 percent of students get a job outside their major your four years of studying those skills are not likely to be relevant in the workforce. So, if you’re not going to get a job in your major and the other things that you study don’t necessarily give you the skills, if you know that going in, you can do something about it. And then leverage supplemental learning. Online, offline tools, they exist today. How many of you have heard of General Assembly. One of the greatest companies is teaching all these smart kids the day-to-day things that they need to know to be successful in the workforce. They’re available. They’re affordable. In some cases, they’re free. You can’t beat free. And the quality is there. So, invest in yourself. Take control of your own life. Don’t assume that somebody else is going to teach you. And do it on your own.

Dan concluded by saying, “So, in conclusion, we’re saying embrace the changing education landscape. Whether you like it or not, it’s happening. It’s happened. Five years ago isn’t today. Five years from now won’t be what we know today. If you embrace it, if you accept it, if you acknowledge it – it doesn’t mean it isn’t confusing or difficult or you’re going to make all the right decisions – we don’t even know what those right decisions are – but stop trying to fix and preserve what was. Embrace what is and we can address it. We believe the problem is knowable – which is there’s a real gap in people’s expectations on all three major constituencies. Once you know it, we believe you can fix it. Thank you very much.”

Following Dan Rosensweig’s breakfast keynote, I interviewed him in the hallway. Actually, it was less of a formal video interview and more of a continuing conversation about college readiness skills and improving student outcomes. You can watch and hear that conversation by playing the YouTube video below.


(Greg Jarboe is the editor of The Advocate of Affordable College blog and the former editor of the Knowledge Transfer blog. He’s also the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, an instructor at the Rutgers Business School, the content marketing faculty chair at Market Motive, as well as the author of YouTube and Video Marketing: An Hour a Day.)