“What is college for?”

The New York Times ran a stunning series on the heavy burden of student loan debt on the front page of the Sunday paper. Today, they followed up with a column geared toward teachers. The piece included a helpful series of probing questions, the first of which is:

“What is college for?”

In a culture where Big Ten athletics are fetishized to the point of religion and the four-year college experience has been immortalized in movies, television shows, music videos, and books, I’m not sure most high school students would know the answer to that question.

We held our college foundation scholarship recipient reception today. Our students are not your typical 18 year olds. We have a mom who’s retraining for the career she actually wants– with her three sons. In the same program. We have a recent immigrant who is happy that he can be a good role model for his young children. We have a guy in his late 40s who has a BA from a major university who is learning a real trade. They shared their stories this morning, each thanking the foundation for supporting their dreams. They talked about how supported they feel at the school. They talked about how they were confident they would be able to get a job upon graduation because of the training they’d received.

And yet, technical colleges get a bad rap. Counselors send their troubled students to us. People think of us as the “vo-tech”– never mind that schools like Cal Poly & Virginia Tech are well-regarded nationally. “Vo-tech” connotes low skill, low intelligence, low ability.

What does this have to do with innovation? Higher ed is hobbled by the tyranny of assigned status. In an upside down world, what is valued is the production, not the skill that is acquired. Degrees equate influence. And yet it is the people who are able to see beyond those frames who are truly successful. In Fast Company’s list of the top five habits of innovators, not a single point is related to status or degree. In fact, I would argue that many of our students are absolutely future-imagining, systems-connected people who understand instinctively that the fastest way to get between two points is a straight line– which doesn’t mean a meandering four-year degree. In short, students who choose a technical college education are in many cases better poised to be innovation leaders than their four-year degree bearing colleagues.

I talked with a medical assistant student today who told me that her ultimate goal was to be a doctor– but she knew that if she got this degree first, she could get hired on at our local University hospital and they would then pay for her education. Invest $5,000, get a $90,000 education paid for? Creative. Innovative. Sharp. And, yes, a technical college student.

As this student would tell you, college isn’t an end unto itself. It’s a path to a goal. And the better defined your goal, the more paths you’ll see. Seeing multiple pathways to a clear end? That’s innovation.