The Benefits of Maternity Leave

This is not a post about female empowerment or the benefits of having benefits. I’m talking about the benefits to a supervisor when a staff member announces they will be going on maternity leave.

You read that correctly. I’ve come to realize there are huge benefits to staff taking planned leave for six weeks or more. Especially if they play a vital role to your office structure and love their job.

Okay, I know you’re thinking I’ve officially lost my mind.

Here’s the thing. My assistant director is preparing for her upcoming leave. In all honesty, she’s my right hand (and half my brain), so how could I possibly feel this way? Think about it. Planning. Organizing. Catching up! After all, she’s known for over eight months this day was coming. Rather than sit back and count down the weeks, she took full advantage of planning for her maternity leave by creating the most amazing documentation of her key responsibilities. I’m talking about things only she knows she does. And now, we have pages and pages of step-by-step, up-to-date, detailed documentation on how to do all of it. Everything!

If I had anxiety about her being away for eight weeks, it ebbed substantially after sitting down with her to review her maternity leave plan—specifically, the tasks I’ll be responsible for in her absence. She created a series of linked documents in Google Drive, so everyone on our team has access.

I always knew my assistant director was detail oriented, but wow. I mean, WOW! This process was a great learning experience for everyone in the office. She summarized her main responsibilities and was able to review her processes to ensure accuracy. Everyone taking over parts of her job for the upcoming months now knows exactly what to do and when and how to do it. Plus, I got to see how much she truly cares about her work and responsibilities. We all feel comfortable with her leaving because she’s prepared us so well. We all have good intentions of creating documentation, but sometimes we need a kick (from the inside or out) to get us going.

Education Reformation on the 500th Anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses

October 31, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of his hometown church, as legend has it, he launched innumerable changes to the western world. One of those being a direct challenge to the commonly understood definition of “expert.”

In some ways the Reformation was as much a technological evolution as much as it was cultural and theological. Gutenberg’s printing press allowed for the rapid dissemination of religious materials in the vernacular of the masses. Up until then the Roman Catholics of the day leveraged access to the bible (or lack thereof) to create experts, or rather, priests. By virtue of constricting access to the scripture, Catholic leaders lay claim to the only path to God’s word and thus, His salvation. The printing press eliminated that barrier to expert witness, exposing the masses directly to God’s word.

One wonders whether we’re seeing a 21st century version of the 95 Theses today. Machines are advancing their capability to take on more and more tasks that were once the sole proprietor of the human mind and body. Evolutionary jumps in robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are creating a new automation age. Machines can now not only perform a range of routine physical work activities better and more cheaply than humans, but they are also expanding their capability to accomplish activities that involve cognitive skills once considered too complicated to automate, such as making tacit judgments or even sensing emotion.

The question is, then, how will this technological evolution manifest itself in today’s definition of the idea of an expert (a professional)? How is a profession defined if it can be done by a machine (try checking the chances) that your own profession will be automated. If Gutenberg’s printing press gave the masses scripture which by-passed the need for a trained priest, how will this new form of machine age redefine the professions that give structure to our present education system?

Richard and Daniel Susskind’s book The Future of the Professions characterizes today’s professions as sharing four common features. 1 they have specialists knowledge; 2 their admission depends on credentials; 3 their activities are regulated; and 4 they are bound by a common set of values.

The first two characteristics are the property of education and our overarching practices concerning education have not altered much in centuries. Paulo Freire, in his masterful work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, described this aged tradition as the banking concept of education which views students as containers into which educators must put knowledge. He critiques this by writing, “Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.”

There are hints of a new education reformation on the near horizon. Flipped classrooms, adaptive learning, and other structural changes recognize that access to information is no longer the primary paradigm of education. The educator’s currency described by Freire, knowledge, is now ubiquitous. The sum total of all human knowledge is now comfortably resting in the palm of your hand. The Susskind’s write, “There is less need for a sage on the stage’ and more of a job for ‘guide on the side’ – those who help students navigate through alternative sources of expertise. In other words, value of education is no longer the facts, but the skills to navigate those facts.

Where does the role for higher education fit in all of this? The fact that specialists’ knowledge is available to everyone will surely alter the notion that credentialed admission is the only entry into professions. How will this new technological age merge with a DYI culture? And what role will higher education serve in it? (There are those who might skillfully claim that college tuition is a new form of Catholic Indulgences.)

Gutenberg’s printing press and Luther’s 95 Theses did not spell the end of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, the Catholic Church resisted change fairly successfully for 450 years after Luther’s nail in the door. Only relatively recently did it partially reform in its own way in 1965. Perhaps modern higher education, founded from the same DNA that trained those Catholic priests, can too resist change and survive. I’d rather not test that hypothesis.

Despite its stuffy reputation, higher education has proved itself to be rather adept at adaptation over the years. From its ability to scale up with the massification of education brought on by Morrill Act and the GI Bill to its ability to innovate through large scale disinvestment from the states, colleges and universities continue to find themselves at the crux of social need and economic necessity. The world still needs experts (in fact, it needs many many more of them) and the definition of that need may very well change over time. Post-secondary education must continue to adapt to stay relevant. In the end, the question is will higher education be the parchment of 95 Theses or will it be the door that Theses is nailed on to?

Federal Investment in Michigan Tech: Students are a Good Bet

This week The Student Loan Report published a report that analyzed the default rate among graduates from thousands of universities. Using federal data from the Department of Education, the report looks at the three-year default rate for students who entered repayment beginning in 2014. The national average for default among these borrowers is 11.5%, an increase of 1.77 percentage points over last year. Public college students only did a tad better than the overall average, defaulting at a rate of 11.3%.

Michigan Technological University’s three-year default rate, however, is much better, holding steady at 2.0%. Overall, Michigan Tech ranked #119 out of 1,900 schools reviewed by this report (in the top 6%). Among public institutions, Michigan Tech ranked #27 in the nation (top 2%).

Public Rank 1But many of those public institutions are actually medical schools consisting mostly of graduate students (and just handfuls of undergraduate students). Removing the public medical schools, Michigan Tech ranks 18th in the country for the lowest default rate.

Public Default 2

Finally, the default rate isn’t only a factor of how easily a student can pay back their loans with their early-career earnings, it is also a factor of their socio-economic class background. Students coming from higher earning families borrow less and have back-up means by which to pay off their loans if they do borrow. So we pulled a bit of additional data from the White House Scorecard. Of those top 18 non-medical school public institutions, only three (UC-Irvine, George Mason, and Suny Geneseo) had a higher percentage of students qualifying for the federal Pell Grant.

Looking at it this way, it’s fair to say that Michigan Tech is one of the top four public institutions in the nation where students from modest to moderate financial means can get an education that ensures them the ability to pay back their loans after graduation.

Name 3

No school on this list has a higher percentage of their student body taking out federal loans than Michigan Tech.  In other words, on this list no other public institution in the nation has a larger percentage of students taking out loans with the lowest default rate three years after entering repayment.  Secretary DeVos should sleep well knowing that Michigan Tech students are a good investment for our nation from that point alone.


How to be Successful in “The Future of Work”

Last week a symposium was held at Stanford University titled “The Future of Work.” Collaborators from Silicon Valley, higher education institutions across the country, and other industry leaders gathered to discuss the impact of advancements in technology, including how higher education will need to react to changing economic needs. Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX and professor at MIT set the stage with his remarks, “by 2030 fifty-percent of jobs will be replaced by robots or some other form of technology. Half the workforce will need to upscale their skills to stay employed.” What skills will be needed and how will students/workers acquire them?

“People skills will be the most durable in our new economy” stated Guy Berger, Chief Economist at LinkedIn. These skills consist of critical thinking, problem solving, and the ability to be agile in your career, allowing you to take on new job opportunities that match your increasing skills set. College majors increasing in demand include computer programming, data science, and engineering.

Anant believes that the quickening pace of technological creation and innovation will support the development of a culture of life-long learning. Schooling will not end with college graduation with a 4-year degree. Anant believes colleges could move toward a subscription model. Like a magazine, each person would subscribe to it, paying a monthly payment, but having the ability to take any courses needed to stay updated in knowledge relevant to their careers.

Farouk Dey, Associate Vice Provost and Dean of Career Education at Stanford University shared Stanford’s 2025 vision for the future of higher education. Termed “Open Loop Education”, students would take a few courses related to their chosen career, then go to work applying what they have learned, returning to school when they need additional knowledge in a never ending cycle. Dey also noted the rise of “Skill Boot Camps”. These 3 to 5 day intense downloads of information is another way for workers to upscale their skills.

These new developments in technology, changes in educational models, and values of the Millennial and Gen Z generations have combined to create the Gig Economy. This is one characterized by short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs. To continue to qualify for these short-term assignments, workers will need to be “experts” in their specialized fields, further endorsing these new education models.

The rise of robots and advancements in areas of artificial intelligence will cause a loss of many current jobs. This shift will also create new careers in a transformed economy. The degree each of us will be successful in this economy will depend on how quickly we become active life-long learners.

Making the Case for Student Loan Repayment Benefits

With continued declining support from the states, it’s unlikely anyone would be surprised by the rising costs of higher education.  Colleges can and do point to declining state support, rising operational costs, etc., and while that may make sense with students and families, it doesn’t solve their ultimate concern of overwhelming student debt and how it will impact them after graduation.

In a 2017 survey from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), 98% of families indicated that they are looking for ways to lower the cost of college.  This shouldn’t be surprising, but the more impactful result of this survey was that 69% of students ruled out a particular college due to costs.  This number rose gradually from 58% when the survey was first distributed in 2008.  At the same time, federal aid applications (via the FAFSA) have risen this year to 86% on average.  The bottom line is that college is costing more and students and their families are struggling to find methods to pay.

According to, on average the class of 2016 graduates had $37,172 in student loan debt.  This was an increase of 6% from 2015.  Furthermore, the average monthly student loan payment that borrowers ages 20 to 30 years old must make are $351.  (Again, that’s just the average, so while some are lower, some are also significantly higher too.)

Colleges have to balance their budgets and can only make so many cuts.  Federal aid continues to be a controversial subject, and no drastic increases in aid or loan forgiveness are on the horizon.  Additionally, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is limited in who qualifies and the entire program is in question currently.  The statistics shared above make the case for new approaches and creative solutions, but not where you might expect them.  In a 2017 survey conducted by IonTuition, data shows that student borrowers are increasingly supporting the concept of employers offering student loan repayment assistance programs and benefits.  The survey found that 81% of more than 1,000 borrowers surveyed said they would like to work for an employer that offers student loan repayment plans.  While 87% of respondents noted that they are currently employed, the majority indicated that paying off their student loan balances remains a persistent problem.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for employers to try some new and innovative approaches to recruit graduates.  Of the respondents, 51% indicated that they would prefer a student loan repayment benefit over health care benefits.  Similarly, 49% said they would prefer the same over a 401(k) package.  According to NASFAA, these findings demonstrate that the concerns of young employees are vastly different from past generations, with a focus on paying down debt as opposed to planning for retirement or saving for other milestones.

IonTuition’s findings support the concept that companies can stay current by adding benefits that are more desirable to their workforce.  Offering student loan benefits to employees could be a creative way to recruit and retain talented college graduates.  Might this just be trading one financial problem for another?  Potentially, but that doesn’t change the data and the fact that young college graduates are looking for something new and different from their employers’ benefits packages

Dear Mr. Barone,

Michael Barone reheats and serves up a plate-full of stale pizza cliché in his June 8 Washington Examiner column claiming people who choose not to go to college might be better off than those who do. (This article was rerun in my local paper, the Daily Mining Gazette on June 10, and this letter is in response to that edition.)

The fact of the matter is, the economy has created 11.6 million jobs since the recovery of the great recession. Ninety-nine percent of those jobs have gone to people with some education, 72 percent have gone to people with a four year degree or better. The Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives recently found that of the top 50 good paying, growing occupations in the state through 2024, 43 require some college, and 36 require a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Mr. Barone points to rising tuition and administration bloat as two more reasons students should not attend college. Michigan’s House Fiscal Agency found in 2013 that since fiscal year 2001, 80% of tuition price increases are attributable to state funding reductions, and nearly 100 percent when factoring in institutional financial aid. When accounting for inflation, Michigan Tech’s state appropriations are 30 percent lower than they were in 2002, but yet, Michigan Tech is educating 10 percent more students than it was in 2002. Doing 10 percent more with 30 percent less does not suggest Michigan Tech is on a path towards bloat.

Yet still at $63,300 a year, Michigan Tech grads are earning the highest average starting salary of any of the public 15 universities and 10th highest in the nation. Our graduates spend about 3.5 percent of their take home paycheck paying off their student loan, less than Michigan’s state income tax rate of 4.25 percent. And yes, our graduates do pay back as well. Last year, an estimated 1,000 Michigan Tech graduates started their careers in Michigan; earning the average starting salary they will collectively earn over $60 million dollars and pay 2.8 million in state income taxes – in just one year. We suspect that the 23,000 Michigan Tech grads of working age in the state are doing at least as well as this one class.

Michigan Tech is feeding a talent-starved industry sector with the graduates who can develop, understand, apply, manage, and communicate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. As much as Mr. Barone wants to paint all higher education institutions as bastions of leftist idolatry, it’s clear he forgets to assert that the engine of a knowledge-based economy is education.

I wonder if Mr. Barone thinks he would have been better off declining his secondary education at the elite Michigan private high school of Cranbrook (with a current endowment of over $300 million) and as well his college at Harvard ($37 billion endowment) and his law degree from Yale ($1.2 billion endowment). My guess? Probably not.

Will Company Conformist Cultures Limit the Impending Supercycle of Innovation?

In the 1930’s when the world was in a great depression, innovation creation excelled in the form or jet engines, televisions, synthetic materials, and even early computers. John Michaelson’s goes on in his Wall Street Journal article, “Prepare for a New Supercycle of Innovation”, to document how historically economic downturns are followed by intense periods of industrial growth led by inventions and increased productivity. This can only occur in corporate cultures that question the status quo, encouraging outside-the-box thinking. But are we encouraging this non-conformist attitude?

Francesca Gino of the Harvard Business School notes that “across industries and jobs, employees are feeling pressured to follow established norms and practices in their own organizations. They tell of being frustrated by the lack of opportunities to speak their minds, to be the best versions of themselves, to bring their ideas to the table or suggest ideas for changing the status quo for the better.”  Are companies truly encouraging a culture of conformity, thus stifling a culture of advancement and invention needed for a strong post-recession super-cycle of innovation?

Michigan Technological University graduates over 80% of its students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) related fields, a majority being in engineering disciplines. Eager to take their newly acquired knowledge for a test-drive, many engage in co-op’s or internships before graduation, starting as early as the summer after their freshmen year. So are they experiencing this conformist atmosphere during these corporate experiences?

A young Mechanical Engineering student who worked spring semester at Polaris was tasked with realigning instructions and illustrations being used in their productions processes with the goal of improving quality and efficiencies of the processes. He found that “quick thinking and innovative approaches from my side ensured he could find solutions” that were vetted, endorsed, and then implemented by his supervisors.

Another Mechanical Engineering student worked at Expera Specialty Solutions. He was tasked with reviewing their chemical delivery system used for their specialty paper orders and discover what was causing defects in their customized orders. The culture encourages innovation and understands that trial-and-error is accompanied by mistakes which he addressed in his comments “although I know I have made mistakes along the way, everyone easily dismisses the mistakes and focuses on what you have done to resolve the problem.”

Finally, a Chemical Engineering student was assigned to a team at Bemis that is developing a food-packaging product with high barrier properties. This innovation would be used to keep certain chemicals, flavors, and nutrients inside a package, opening up vast new markets for the company. She was encouraged to communicate her ideas, no matter how far outside-the-box which were welcomed and considered by all on the team. She did realize that “there is monotonous work that comes along with the job, but it needs to be completed in order to get to the exciting innovative tasks.”

Michaelson’s is predicting an upcoming Supercycle of Innovation, while Gino’s observations indicated an existing corporate culture of conformation will stifle this creative cycle. I argue that cultures of non-conformity still exist in companies like Polaris, Expera, and Bemis. If indeed this culture of conformity exists, it is not comprehensive. It is also possible that STEM focused graduates are being hired in greater numbers into these non-conformist cultures, for they have the tools to make innovation occur. The number of STEM graduates could be the ultimate limiting factor on the degree of economic success associated with the coming Supercycle of Innovation!

The Value of STEM Education in an AltFact Word

The Value of STEM Education in an AltFact World: At its very core the scientific method is a market economy, where the currency is truth.

In his book, The Death of Expertise published earlier this year, US Naval War College Professor Tom Nichols laments, “Americans no longer distinguish the phrase ‘you’re wrong’ from the phrase ‘you’re stupid.’ To disagree is to disrespect. To correct is to insult. And to refuse to acknowledge all view as worthy of consideration, no matter how fantastic or inane they are, is to be closed minded.”

For all of the bluster about political correctness, free speech, SJW snowflakes, etc…neither side of the political spectrum has gotten any better hearing the words, “you’re wrong.” In fact, our communication bubbles have become so insular that we rarely take the opportunity to challenge the veracity of that which we are presented. Much has been made about this post-factual world, and post-truth politics. This worldview is one framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.

Psychologists are discovering how we, as humans, come to access, construct and evaluate beliefs. Most of us assume that our sets of beliefs and fundamental knowledge of the world comes to us as a set of constructs grounded in facts. We assemble these facts into structures upon which we build our beliefs. Psychologists are finding something different. Rather than building our beliefs assembled around a set of facts about our world, most of us tend to build our facts around a set of beliefs.

This is not a new concept. Researchers have studied the phenomena of confirmation bias for sometime. Confirmation bias is often defined as “the tendency to seek out information that supports and seemingly validates one’s own viewpoint” One famous example is the “lunar effect.” There are numerous studies that center on emergency room visits correlated with full moon nights. Systematic reviews of this research consistently demonstrate that there is simply no evidence for that the full moon causes an increase in emergency room visits. Why, then, do people continue to believe this? Data show that belief in the lunar effect remains at about 40-45%, even among those highly educated. The answer is simply, confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is found when we notice, accept, and remember information that confirms beliefs we already have, while ignoring, forgetting, or explaining away contradictory data. Belief in a lunar effect, therefore, feeds on itself. Cue the old saw, “the plural of anecdote is not ‘data”

There is probably not a single more visible example of confirmation bias in today’s news than in politics. In a desperate attempt to validate everything about our preferred candidate and discredit all about our opponent’s candidacy, we gather facts that align with our beliefs and tend to discredit the facts that are counter-productive to those thoughts. This has gotten to be so prolific that this year we’ve begun to hear about living in a post-factual world.

So what does this have to do with a STEM based education? Fundamental to a STEM-based education is deep understanding of the scientific method. The scientific method demands that one must suspend belief until data can show that that belief can be embraced.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean that beliefs not supported by fact have no use. Actually, the opposite is true. Those are called hypotheses are as important to the scientific process as the facts themselves. But central to the scientific process is that our beliefs are wrapped around the facts. And what happens when the opposite happens? Sometimes disaster. The space shuttle Challenger for one. In that example, the desire to send up the shuttle loaded with the first teacher in space, was so great, beliefs that the colder temperatures the night before the launch would have no effect on the safety on the launch were bended around the facts.

And this is where STEM education becomes incredibly valuable. Much has been written about the doors STEM education opens, the jobs available to STEM college degree holders, the importance to the country’s global competitiveness that STEM education means. But to a lesser extent do we talk about what the scientific process can teach us within this post-factual world.

The entire exercise of science is figuring out what is true. The scientific method requires one to form a hypothesis, test it, get a result. And then one presents this work to a community of peers whose duty it is to attempt to poke holes in those results, to double check the work. STEM education, the scientific method itself, teaches critical thinking. And, most importantly, STEM education teaches one that the words, “you’re wrong” don’t convey disrespect. They don’t communicate intolerance or close mindedness. They don’t shut down a conversation or open up a flood of superficial anonymous insults in the comments section. In science, “you’re wrong” means progress! Even Jules Verne knew this, “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.”

The Importance of Recruiting Efforts, Don’t “Poison the Well”!

Career services departments on college campuses across America answer student inquiries on topics from resumes to where to find a job. A growing area of student frustration that has risen is communications with companies during the hiring process. Questions such as; how do I know if they got my on line application; when should I hear back from them after the interview; how often should I contact them before I become annoying; and why don’t they let me know if I received the job? With the labor market tightening this lack of corporate follow up is now producing a backlash from this young workforce.

Future Workplace LLC and human resource software company CareerArc Group LLC surveyed job candidates on this topic. Nearly two thirds of these candidate stated they were less likely to purchase goods and services from an employer who treated them poorly during the recruiting process. This trend is also impacting recruiting efforts.

Recently, a panel of engineering and information technology students were questioned by Michigan Tech’s Career Services Corporate Advisory Board members. Company representatives inquired what made a positive recruiting experience, their answers included:

  • Don’t make me fill out long on-line applications
  • Make us feel like you want us
  • Be sincere in your interest
  • Acknowledge receipt of our application
  • We place a high value on positive experience(s) with recruiters

Students went on to explain the type of work they expected in co-ops and internships work opportunities (and we would add full-time opportunities). They want meaningful assignments, hands-on focused work, and projects where they could see a start and a finish. There must be evidence of progress and impact to company operations.

Where did students get most of their information about a company and its culture? Number one source was their peers that had worked/do work at that company or had interactions with their recruiters (including what they had heard from other students). Take note companies interested in recruiting highly sought after candidates in STEM related careers, lack of follow up in recruiting or unstructured co-op/internship opportunities will not only poison your bucket of recruits, but potentially the whole well in both the short and long term


Defining Boundaries

If you’re a fan of the sitcom Seinfeld, you likely remember the close talker episode. Google it if you have no idea what I’m talking about—it’s a good time and well worth 2.5 minutes of your day.

As professionals, most of us have a good understanding of personal space and social awareness. If you work in admissions and have ever done a college fair, you have your table to thank for a built-in boundary.

But how do you define virtual boundaries? Every year there seems to be that one parent who just won’t leave you alone. The emails keep coming with question after question. If you’re good at your job and love what you do, you probably write back without thinking a thing about it.

Our role in higher education, especially in recruitment, is to help students (and parents) grow and develop skills they need to succeed in life. If you’re continually feeding them the answers they need, why should they do any research or (heaven forbid) read the material you send in the mail, when they can whip off an email or text to you and get an instant reply?

If you realize a parent or student may be taking advantage of your strong work ethic and good upbringing, it may be time to disengage. Try these ideas to help foster independence

  • Refer to the appropriate office or staff member who can provide the best and most accurate information
  • Shorten communications and cover only the essentials—don’t ask about their day, or the outcome of the recent vet visit they shared with you last week
  • Reply to email, voicemail, or texts only when a question is asked that you can help with—forward messages to colleagues to assist with other issues
  • Close emails without the offer of being able to “help with any other questions you have!”

Unsure what to do next? Talk to your supervisor or mentor for other suggestions or encouragement. Breaking up is hard to do, but you can do it!