A Further Exploration on Education Pt. 1

“The idea is to establish a good habit of curiosity to continue education.”

That’s what my professor said when describing his reasoning for wanting us to read the Wall Street Journal every day. Not to read it cover to cover like a book but rather to skim through and if something is interesting, read it. Perhaps there is something to that when it comes to education. Let’s revisit the discussion about the shift in education to “teaching the test.”* Having students not learn from a rigid structure rather than promoting a more organic development quashes creativity. Maybe this is not the worst thing. There are a lot of children out there who are constrained by time. With all the extracurricular activities that often take precedence to academic achievement, who has the time (or the money) to develop a flexible, more personalized plan for educating students as individuals.**

*From an economic standpoint there is good reason to teach in this way. Schools are currently evaluated by test scores, ranked against the other schools and districts in order to help determine funding. While the students will have to deal with the issue of not actually being educated, the teachers and the schools can only be a “going concern” if test scores are good. It has come to the point where in some districts teachers are paid a bonus if their classes outperform district/state/national levels. So we see the motivation for the teachers to serve the metrics.

** I do have to mention that I haven’t been properly trained as a teacher. I really haven’t had any formal training in education at all. A lot of my information is outsider perspective from what I have read and understood about educational policy, drawing on personal experience in classroom attendance, and a number of stories from various teachers that I know. I am by no means a subject matter expert and my opinions should not be treated as if they did come from one.

So don’t teach the test, is there something specific that we can do to make people curious? Its hard to say, but there is something there about using real world examples which leads us back to case study. I think I’ve firmly stated my feelings regarding case study, but the more that I talk with people (professors) the more that my general disgust kind of lessens. Case study kind of encases the main things that I support in education. Using real world examples, applying the information taught, trying to keep things open ended and giving students the ability to express opinions based on the personal knowledge and the information given. It is a great idea. I should stress however, the difference between letting students learn a case and teaching a case (as in teaching a test). Does the teacher/professor really focus on what is the best result or the process and the analysis. I’m biased though cause I am pretty big into analysis, break it down so it can be understood. That is part of my problem, I tend to focus on the little things a bunch more than taking a step back to consider the larger picture. I’ll save a lot of little things rather than understanding that in the long run, it probably won’t mean that much.

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I had a conversation with one of my corporate facilitators about how she saw her job (corporate education is something that I may want to transition to in the future) and was surprised that there is a great deal of emphasis on more than just the ability to present and to know the information. While that may seem simple, how it was described to me was that there is sort of fine art to interpersonal communications, feeling out the room. To actors or other types of performers I’m sure that this fact is not particularly ground breaking but I found it curious, the suggestion to not focus so much on the information but presentation skills, conflict resolution, and message delivery.***

***This is an appropriate time to take a break and discuss voices. Obviously the language you use in a professional situation is different from that in a more personal situation. One of the main things to take away from any basic public speaking/effective communication course is knowing the setting and the audience. You may know only know my voice here, (I would like to imagine you thinking it was semi-formal, expressive, informative, and occasionally funny, (not funny in a “laugh out loud” kind of way but rather more of a “good for him, I hope he appreciated that joke and didn’t work on it too long” kind of way (which I really do work on them too long))), but it is not an accurate reflection of my day to day language with friends or family. On that note, I’m looking to actually practice speaking a little more so I may make that a more regular part of the blog in the future. (Remember the video series I did on racing? Weren’t those fun? And I have a number of races lined up for this next year which should be lots of fun!)

And while we’re on teaching styles, let’s take a minute to discuss passion. So far at Rockhurst I have been really pleased with the professors because they seem passionate about their subjects, and that enthusiasm is infectious. Really at any level, showing a little enthusiasm for what you do can go a long way.  I understand this is a job, (and a rather cushy job as it stands), but if there is a premier job that is not widely celebrated for its passion it is education. The problem is that many teachers are not properly compensated for their work (obviously) and there is definitely less emphasis on the education as a whole in this society. Referring back to the first paragraph, the emphasis on the need for well rounded students particularly in sports and other activities outside of school is shifting the structure and levels of expectations inside the classroom. Monopolizing the time of a child sounds great. Keeps them out of trouble, sure, develops other skills outside of the classroom, yes. But the problem lies when those other things outside of the classroom hinder development of standard communication and academic skills. It draws back to what I like to call active followership, not active leadership. One of my more favourite concepts of undergraduate studies is this topic which simply means that not everyone can be a leader. Attempting to pump out this “be a leader” mentality for a whole generation leads to a workforce that feels like they need to be in charge but at the same time catered to day to day with the ideal that if there is something that isn’t going your way, there is a problem with the system.

One of my favourite statements was from a Truman professor who stated, we’re teaching you how to manage cause there are tons of employees who need to be managed coming out of Columbia (state school Missouri University). They say there’s a sucker born every minute.

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BUS 6000: Paper #1: Leadership

“You have an extraordinary opportunity, take full advantage of this gift.” That was how my professor closed my very first MBA class. I am provisionally enrolled in the prestigious Helzberg MBA program at Rockhurst University. Provisional pending a moderate score on a graduate level entrance exam. To say I’m excited is a bit of an understatement.*

*I’ve noted more than once before on this blog that higher education is kind of a big scam, especially for business majors. This holds true. I’m fortunate that my graduate program including all fees will amount to just a hair more than my undergraduate program. Still you must consider that the cost is for about 1/4 of the hours for the same price as undergrad. Law school or Med schools cost much more. I’m thankful that business principles apply in my favor in this situation. There is a demand for MBA programs, so there are more developed and the market has to adjust prices to attract students. Diversification is a great strategy in this type of market, if there was something to diversify. Rockhurst prides itself on being the most accredited and most Jesuit program while an institution such as Baker prides itself on flexibility and ease of entry. Still, at the end of the day, there will be far too many MBA graduates than the market needs and while it will help in advancing the career, still gotta put in the sweat like everyone else. Or get lucky.

So my first class is BUS6000: Managerial Communications which serves a dual purpose. 1) To introduce students to how the Helzberg MBA is structured and what to generally expect and 2) To clean up any sort of remaining communication issues in business writing and presenting. We are to write 4 short papers on topics from the 6 learning goals: Leadership, Ethical and Corporate Social Responsibility, Business Skills and Knowledge, International/Global Perspectives, Information Analysis and Education, and Communication. Since these papers are short, I thought I’d share what I wrote and update as the program goes along.

:: Leadership ::

A tenant of the Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity is the development of principled business leaders. This seems to be a common theme regarding leadership among the business classes or organizations that I have attended. Such fanaticism regarding developing everyone into strong business leaders instills the idea that if you are not going to be a leader, you are not successful. This unrealistic expectation graduates thousands of students every year who expect to be business leaders but find out rather quickly that everyone cannot be a leader and especially not right away. Realistic leadership, I find, derives from a combination of experience, a solid knowledge base, and good followership.

Experience is a pretty scary term for business students as it presents the first major barrier in starting one’s career. Without strong working experience, there is little chance of promotion or raises or the opportunity to pursue certain jobs. Simply put, most everyone needs to put in the time necessary in his particular area, mainly because what is learned in the classroom does not always translate exactly into the future job. In terms of leadership, experience is necessary because co-workers need to have a good sense of an individual’s skills and how they work before they will be comfortable following them.

A solid knowledge base refers not only to the information that a potential leader has in his head, but also to the information regarding the job. This can cover the actual specifics of the position, general industry knowledge, and especially the catalog of resources and skills available from each team member. The latter part is especially helpful in defining roles and exploiting the personal “core competencies” of each team member which helps the group as a whole be more efficient and more focused. While charisma and building relationships with people are strong factors in leadership, without a strong knowledge base, that particular individual has a much lower ability to realize successful leadership.

Good followership is not simply being able to take orders and do your job effectively. It also means supporting the leader in what ways is necessary. While this may seem to be straightforward, the implications are a bit more complex. Being a good follower does not mean being submissive to a leader but rather supporting ideas or decisions when needed and by opposing ideas when it is not the best for the group. In an ideal group, all members are working hard to support the group and all have applicable leadership skills without striving for control or domination. Rather any particular person in that group practicing good followership could be the leader at any given point, a fact that I feel needs to be emphasized more in teaching leadership.

Leadership is not a universal skill and should not be expected from every student that decides to go into business. I believe that confidence, charisma, and talent go a long way in starting a career in business and growing strong leaders. I do not fault organizations in trying to instill this hopeful idea. However, unless the student can combine experience, a strong knowledge base, and good followership, they cannot realistically expect to become great leaders.

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Note that this is following the guidelines established for the paper which included:

5 paragraphs, 1 opening, 3 body, 1 conclusion
“copy and paste” thesis in opening and closing paragraphs
Use exact phrasing from thesis for beginning of each body paragraph (for “imprinting”)
Focus on making the document readable and straightforward

For the record, I really didn’t like this paper at all but given the restrictions (1 page, single spaced) there was not a lot of room to play around with it. I am a bit stronger with a bit of persuasion in my writing. It is an art I think, writing, but I won’t delve too deeply into it in this post, just to say, I am comfortable when I can use a lot of “colors” when I have the time and space to make you see what I want you to see. Business writing isn’t like that, which is why this class may be a bit more refreshing. Gives me an opportunity to practice writing things straight up for a change. We’ll see.

Edu-ma-cations

Quick blurb, I’m a subscriber to Esquire, a pretty decent periodical that lies somewhere in the cross-section of Cosmopolitan, Gentleman’s Quarterly, and a watered down Economist. Generally, as with most magazines, there are more ads than content, featuring a host of chiseled models flaunting booze or watches or clothes. Some pretty decent articles in there though. I particularly enjoy Stephen Marche’s column that appears in every issue, “1000 Words About Our Culture”. Sometimes lighthearted, most of the time insightful, generally critical, Mr. Marche is what comes to mind when I think of modern editorials.

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The latest issue had this terrific piece titled “The War On Youth” generally talking about how the debt is packed against the interests of the future American generations. The point that I particularly liked was the discussion about education. If you have an ear to things that make noise about our current situation, education is a hot topic and one that probably is vitally important to the other, more publicized areas of concern that will be hotly debated in the coming election. From what I gather, everyone seems to agree something needs to change but what and how are still left blank. The United States is falling behind other industrialized nations in terms of quality of education and we are attaching far more debt to that situation than any other time in history. Marche’s article sums it up kind of like this (page 2 of the article linked above):

High School > College > Internship > Job> Work Until Somebody Retires > Maybe $$$* > Worried Some Young Guy With a Fancy Degree is Going to Take You Job > Retire**

*(more likely it will be $, instead)

**No Social Security. Also Do Not Pass Go. Possibly Eat Cat Food. Shake Your Fist at Politicians. And Children. Tell them to invest early for Retirement.

You have to get a college education. According to the data, you are going to make more money and have more job security. But the data and Marche show that the price of higher education has risen a staggering 128% since 1980. Compound that with numbers that show “no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing” after two years in college. Having just recently exited a university setting, I know that is definitely the truth. The University of Missouri-Kansas City has a test called* the WEPT  (Written English Proficiency Test). Requirements are to have taken a “sophomore” level English course as well as have at least 45 credits accumulated. What does that mean exactly? You need to be at least a junior standing in order to sit for a test that is supposed to evaluate your ability to write critically at a college level and enroll in “WI” Writing Intensive courses that are required to graduate. Ridiculous!

But even higher institutions are not immune to such ridiculousness. Highly vaunted Truman State University has a required course called “Writing and Critical Thinking” or** WACT. That course is coded ENG 190 and is a first year requirement at the “Harvard of the Midwest”*** And as much as I hate calling attention to the school paper, “The Index” there was a decent column written by biased and “TTS” (Typical Truman Student), Tyler Retherford in which he asked aloud why so many resources were being pumped into these WACT courses and other similar courses (Public Speaking and College Algebra) at Truman. Part of the appeal of Truman is that it accepts some of the best students in the region and there is more money being spent on making sure that they can write paragraphs than have adequate professors for junior and senior levels courses in certain majors offered.

*Hilariously

**Also hilariously

***Also known as: The Princeton of the Prairie, The Yale of the Yokels, Oxford near the Ozarks

So yes, I would imagine that indeed the quality of the American college graduate has suffered while the prices have gone up. So what does that mean? That means several things happen almost simultaneously.

First and most importantly, many, many people are earning college degrees that don’t deserve them.*

Second, the rise in prices creates a demand for education at (more) affordable pricing which brings in such institutions as Phoenix Online which offers college degrees through your computer at your convenience for a price you won’t get at any brick and mortar school. (Side effect of second point, more people who probably shouldn’t have a degree).

Thirdly, there is a massive amount of debt being racked up by those students. This is the tricky part. There are more people out there with college degrees** which means employers can afford to pay less. You are suddenly very replaceable and you are getting less pay than previous generations of college grads and on top of that you have all that debt. So what happens now?

*Like politicians and people getting “honorary” degrees. Also Pay for Degrees.

**Let’s not talk about quality of one university against another. Pretend it is a level playing field for a little bit. The difference in education between, let’s say Rockhurst, UMKC, Baker, and Southwest Baptist are likely negligible to a hiring company in let’s say Florida. Unless the hiring manager is an alum from one of those institutions, you’re likely going to get the same shot as the next guy. That brings up a rather sticky issue of “who you know” rather than “what you know” but that is a conversation for another time.

Now you really want to set yourself apart. This becomes a paper chase. Master’s Degree, Law School, Medical School, all are prestigious (although a masters in business administration (MBA) means about as much as an associate’s degree* nowadays), and all are super expensive. So you saddle yourself down with more debt and you become a lawyer or a doctor or a professor. Your dreams of reaching a higher salary are finally reached? Nope! Stuck slogging it out until one of your esteemed colleagues retires. Meanwhile more and more people are diluting your once exclusive pool.

*See also Bounty v Brawny or Charmin v Cottonelle

So you skip college and get a technical job. Labor is still important right? Work your way up in less time but with more physicality. You’ll be making about as much as a college grad in about a decade or so (and more than a college grad in sociology, psychology, or the arts!). And manufacturing is starting to return to the US! All good news except for the fact that manual processes are being done faster and more efficiently by machines and, as Marche points out in his article, the jobs that are coming back aren’t coming back how we left them. Globalization goes both ways, it brings the First World to the Third World but it also brings the Third World home, and in our case that means wages. Jobs are coming back at Third World rates and to make it through, we have to accept them.

What happens now? What is my grand solution? I really don’t have one. I would suggest for one, to take away the tenure of professors and de-unionize the teachers. I understand that this will turn away a lot of people wanting to become teachers but I think it will grant the more important power of taking away bad teachers. Please understand, I know about the general “everyone wins” psyche of the American student but I think that will fall more in line once the teachers are in line and the administrations are roundly dismissed. People more concerned about keeping jobs than the welfare of the students (sound familiar?*) No more blatant example of this can I give you than the case I believe I have discussed with Staley High School in the North Kansas City School District. At Staley you have the ability to retake tests and resubmit assignments. When it first opened the window for these actions was 18 weeks. I didn’t type that wrong. 18 weeks. Now it has been forcefully trimmed back to 3 weeks for normal classes and 2 weeks for AP and College courses. A retake or resubmission is good for a 100% replacement of the first grade that you got. Say you got a 0 on a test. Retake it! Get a 70 and that now replaces your grade. Such a blatant act that openly harms students and attempts to artificially boost GPA for the entire school. That this policy stands not only makes an open mockery of the administration but also only further cements that particular advantages given to the school. For those not familiar with the area, Staley High School is conveniently located in a predominately upper-middle class, predominately white cross section of the North Kansas City School District.

*Politics. I’m talking about people in politics.

In the end, there are a lot of problems. Maybe publicly funded schools are the problem. Maybe we as a society don’t read enough. Maybe it is because textbook manufacturers are a bunch of cronies.** In the meantime, I’m going back to work in the morning. I’m in the financial industry because in business I believe the hierarchy looks kind of like this:

By Prestige:
Management, Finance, Marketing, Accounting, HR

By Actual Money Made:
Accounting, Finance, HR, Management, Marketing***

**You know the politicians are. Am I right? Can I get a high five over here?

***Guess who has two thumbs, a blog, and a marketing major? If you said politicians, congrats! What a savvy humorist you are. If you said Thangers, you are sadly right! Also congrats!

I’m also likely to get in the paper chase as well. The company where I am gainfully employed has a tidy incentive program for those wanting to improve themselves, in this case, a bi-annual stipend for continuing education, namely the pursuit of a MBA (or as is the curious case of my manager, a Bachelors, more on that later). I’ll be keeping you, dear readers, in the loop.

Happy Tax Day!

Textbooks Reimagined?

Last week, Apple made an announcement and release of iPad textbooks. Check out the gizmondo story here: Apple’s iPad Textbooks

To see my thoughts on the current state of the Textbook industry, check out my post from last year: The Textbook Scam

Personally I’m pretty excited to see what can come of this. Carrying a load of textbooks to and fro on any given day not only affects student’s backs but also comes at a tremendous cost. The iPad system hopes to let students carry multiple textbooks perhaps in the cloud with interactive videos and models to add to the learning experience. By teaming up with textbook manufacturers as well as school districts, Apple may have an opportunity to effectively change the landscape of the industry. Imagine future schools where each student gets a tablet and gets passes or downloads a slate of textbooks for each semester. Students would be introduced and more familiar with emerging technology (which is important) while getting rich information much more tangible than a book. Teachers could tailor assignments that link to certain sections of the book and in some cases form the actual chapters the students would work on. And think of the trees!

Wired’s take: iPad Textbooks

A main point that Wired makes is that the technology in the classroom has met with mixed results and learning is affected mainly by the environment rather than available technologies. Children in communities with less crime, higher standard of living, and better teachers will benefit from the use of available technologies, like netbooks or laptops which have been introduced in many school districts. On the other hand, such as Wired makes the case, in Alabama where students and teachers are both struggling and general economic situations are poorer, the use of laptops in the classroom is negligible and does little if anything at all to improve performances.

Time will tell, especially at the primary and secondary level, whether tablet adoption (with school districts nationwide reeling from budget cuts, I find it highly unlikely they will adopt Apple’s iPad but may favor a skimmed down alternative…Kindle Fire anyone?)* Now on university level, I could see this a boon to students and professors (just the tech saavy ones, I find it hard to imagine my former Environmental Literature professor who is a noted environmental radical would be quick to jump on the bandwagon). The worry is that such a move would destroy a multi-million dollar business that is textbooks and used textbook resale. Little shops like the charming “Patty’s University Bookstore” in Kirksville, MO would have to shut down. There are already textbook rentals and online textbooks that are cutting into margins so I would find it hard to think of a situation where the old publishers would be willing to foster a change.Who knows, though, perhaps there is younger and fresher blood working at those publishers who understand the fall of Borders represents a significant change in the landscape for printed materials. Though I do believe that Barnes and Nobles will stick around because of a very special “vintage” niche that has slowly crept back into the American consciousness (be on the lookout for a post about vinyl records).

*Got a Kindle Fire a little after the New Year and it is AWESOME. If you have Amazon Prime, it is a great multimedia device and I would highly reccommend it. While it does not have all the bells and whistles that iPad does (size, camera, storage space) it performs admirably and at less than 1/3 of the cost.

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Hopefully will be back on track as far as writing is concerned. I’m starting to ramp up the training for the race season starting in April and I have been pleasantly surprised by the exceptional weather we have had so far this winter. Lots and lots to do!

Faith in Retail

We are right in the middle of a yet another swingin’ holiday season which means good times for most retailers as US consumers are out and spending. Stores have spent the last month or so bringing on additional seasonal staff for help as the customers increase and taking on extra inventory (if possible) of all the hottest toys and gadgets that have been aggressively pushed out of various manufacturers’ warehouses. This is capitalism at its best, with money circulating through the system, employment numbers dropping (if only temporarily), and the public generally optimistic, a perfect storm of sorts for a sluggish domestic economy.

In the midst of this, thousands, if not tens of thousands, of university students are prepping for mid-year commencement ceremonies and steadying themselves for what looks to be a bleak outlook in some fields. Business majors come a dime a dozen in today’s competitive landscape, specializations outside of Accounting or Finance will be the ones with the most sobering realities. What once was dreams of managing global strategies or working as part of sharp, new age analytic teams will be hammered down to a longing for middle management in just a couple of years.* There are several avenues that people are taking to avoid this, which I support wholeheartedly. One is continuing education. In the current academic model, we have what many experts are referring to as the “Higher Education Bubble” more specifically focusing on student loan debt. This will dramatically change the education landscape within my lifetime but as for now students who are already X amount in debt, may as well tack on another two or four years for a masters or doctorate. As one professor told me quite frankly, “It’s a paper chase. Get the bachelors, get your masters, and then consider the doctorate to set yourself apart.”

*Much like creativity in grade school students being squashed out for test score superiority in what is laughably referred to as a great evaluation system for school effectiveness. Probably address this in more detail in a later post, but for those curious, I found this presentation to be right on point.

Another popular choice among business students is entrepreneurship, which is deliciously entertaining in my opinion. What better way to make a living than taking all the business school education which, frankly, is tailored towards corporate integration, and use it to launch small businesses? It is fantastic that there are more and more entrepreneurship classes being offered and more information and help than ever before for new business makers. Locally, Henry Bloch (of H&R Block) made the largest single donation to UMKC to fund the construction of an Entrepreneurship and Innovation building. I see this as a positive direction for encouraging more dynamic ideas and economic growth here in Kansas City. Much like endurance races gives people a feeling of accomplishment and control, much of the same feeling can come from owning your own business, plus money! But what I want to focus more on in this post is the plight of the Marketing major.

::

I will be graduating very soon and will look for full time, sustainable employment, not unlike many new graduates and frankly more than 15% of Americans. I would wager that it is not altogether uncommon for Marketing majors to end up doing sales. Many career paths for Marketing majors actually write in 2-5 years in sales before moving up to the next level. What they don’t say is that enthusiastic high school graduates have about 4 years jump in that particular field. Now, sales is like waiting tables. I’ve waited tables, you present your stuff, if you are friendly, work hard at building relationships, sure you’ll do alright. But when it comes to marketing strategy or marketing analysis or consulting, that seems a far stretch for the new graduate. I understand the mindset, you can’t form a strategy for the product until you’re out in the field with it. Learn intimately who is buying the product, where you are selling it, how you can sell it and put in your time as a peon before climbing the ladder and helping make decisions. I don’t mind that system too much. But I hate retail. People are terrible. I think I’ve said it before, everyone should be required to spend a year waiting tables and/or working in retail. That way we can bring up a new generation that is not horrible to service people.*

*I want to be clear here. This is not to say that there are not horrible people working the service industry or in retail. In an earlier post I wrote about how waiters have had their jobs broken into smaller and smaller parts so that it is easier to put in a replacement in what is already an industry of high turnover. This leads to less specialized skills and an overall regression of the level of service at many businesses. Still, customers can be really, really terrible people and that is generally not warranted. Generally.

Recently I have been interviewing a couple of local small business owners in Kansas City, more specifically, of two running shoe retailers; the Running Well Store and Gary Gribble’s Running Sports. This was to fulfill a two part need academically; one for MGT 301: Business Communications project in which I needed to interview someone and do research about a company I was interested in and do the paper/presentation bit. The second was primary research for ENT 460: Creating the Enterprise, where we need to write a business plan for a new business venture (mine is a minimalist/barefoot training program). I had the pleasure of speaking to owner Gary Gribble for about an hour a couple of days ago and was pleasantly surprised with the interview.

I came in with a general outline on business and business practices for a local footwear retailer but was treated with quite a bit more. Gary is a very kindly man and willing, as most people are, to share some knowledge with those who are asking. To put it simply, men like Gary Gribble restore my confidence in the US retail system and makes sales look a bit better as an alternative. Gary had a passion for teaching but while student teaching he came across what he called “an unacceptable situation” where one teacher would teach with passion and hard work and the other just went through the motions. Both were teaching the same subject and both received identical bonuses at the end of the year. This pushed Gary to change to some other career that he saw as more fair, sales.

Sales rewards you for hard work and it is probably the job most easily measurable; Did you make a sale or not? Gary Gribble’s stores gross somewhere around $7 million annually and his philosophy is focused on customer service. He places a lot of emphasis on employee training and trying to make the store a great place to work, even paying his sales staff almost 50% higher than mass retailers. He has seen negligible turnover because of it. Furthermore, there is a focus on tying into the local community. Not only is there support of local races but advertising at a lot of them. Also lending help to the local high school cross country teams in order to build a continuing customer base. Doctors, podiatrists also have a sort of exchange agreement for runners so it is a fascinating network for Gary Gribble who seemed to take a particular amount of pride in being tied into the community.

I don’t think you have to be a business major to see the beauty of this system.
1) Niche focus for which you have a passion (Running)
2) You’re not big, so you have to have something that makes customers want to come to the store (Expertise and Customer Service)
3) Build resources around those core competencies (Employee training/set guidelines)
4) Maintain resources (Employee retention, environmental scanning)
5) Growth strategy? (Community building strategies)

It reads like a simple case study out of any general business text but I think you see it so lacking in a business industry and environment that has a cost-cutting, aggressively expanding focus. I find it so refreshing to meet successful business people who are down to earth, hard working, and customer-centric. And all of that without an online store. Gary said he wanted people to come into the store to get that customer service, he (correctly) summarized that the internet is a cold place and you really need to come in and try on shoes or clothes before you buy them. It gives me hope for a future of friendlier, more ethical, and less imperial business environment. As we become closer and more connected to foreign peoples and cultures, I hope that it forces business to be less about domination and more about cooperation, a strategy that sadly is not as popular in business schools today.

The Textbook Scam

Back to school for university students means spending boatloads of money in pursuit of a degree. For better or worse, billions of dollars will be spent nationwide in all manners of universities from traditional to online. No place more is that money unwisely spent than in college bookstores across the country. In primary and secondary schools, at least as far as I know, books are part of a budget for the school, providing copies to students and replacing them in a cycle every few years or so. (Math books one year, Science next year, etc.) But in college, the student is responsible for the book. Generally the professor chooses a particular book (or books) to teach from the publishers, which is ordered by the university bookstore, which is made available to students. The following is a very, very common email that highlights a major problem in the textbook market: (credit to imagur)

Alright, first things first. A traditional courseload for a full time university student is 12 credit hours. In a two semester academic calendar system, courses are generally worth 3 credit hours apiece (Math, Language, and Science can be 4 or 5 credits depending on the extra lab requirements). This means over the course of an academic year, students will be taking around 8-10 classes, which at a minimum is 8-10 books. English and Literature classes, for example, will normally cover many books but generally not large academic texts. Classes in psychology, science, or business among many others will usually stick to one book a piece. According to an old article from the washingtonpost.com, students in the US (as of 2008) were spending somewhere between $700-1100 dollars a semester for books not including special supplies for those students in Science or Arts (which is prohibitively expensive in its own right. I feel for those students, especially the art students because it really adds up over the course of your degree). The article also discusses the fact that inflation in the last 10 years or so has risen about 3% while textbooks have raised prices more than 6% on average and that the number of textbook publishers has shrunk down to a handful of super-conglomerates (like McGraw Hill).

An important point was brought up during a discussion in one of my business classes, one that I found extremely relevant.

“Is there a fundamental change in the content of or the way that we teach elementary History, Math, or Science?”

Probably not. I would not argue that science is an ever changing field as more research and experiments are being conducted and the continuing charge of new technology opens up new veins of information every day. But teaching about photons or cell cycles should not require a new textbook edition every year. Or every two years. How about math? Does College Algebra or Calculus change from year to year? How about the related field of Accounting as shown in that image above? Is there anything other than a change of problems in the books that would justify a new edition? Did something drastic happen in the meticulous balance of Assets, Liabilities, and Equity that must be taught immediately with this new version? Of course not.* The Wikipedia article on textbooks brings up several areas in which publishers are wrenching money out of the pockets of their customers, methods such as bundling CDs or one time use online content codes destroys the sell-back or resale value of the books.

*Now this doesn’t mean that I’m against innovations in education. Far from it, I wholeheartedly support creative education techniques that help students learn. There are new avenues in all fields that make learning the material easier and stays with the student in a more effective manner, which I think have the opportunity to really impact the system as a whole. Having said that, the textbook publishers do not hold such a view but rather are out to make a buck on what has been a highly unregulated market.

Reselling books was among the most humbling experiences of my first semester in college. For the approximately $500 dollars worth of books that I purchased, I was getting back around $70 (the bookstore would not take a couple of books due to the fact that the professor had not said that it was being used the following semester). For those of you not quick on the calculator, I would be receiving 14% back for the books that I had bought some 3 months earlier. Information in textbooks, apparently, has a much higher depreciation value than worn underwear. This is commonplace however. Referring back to the analysts at the Washington Post, students are likely to receive somewhere between 5-35% of the book’s new sale value when selling back to the bookstore, with the average textbook seeing somewhere between a 6 month-18 month lifespan before becoming prohibitively valueless. So college students (as most hopeless individuals would likely do) blow that meager money on booze and try to erase that dirty feeling you get when you know you’re getting fleeced.**

**On that note, I think there is some validity in liquor stores in college towns hiring extra staff to create a department to trade used textbooks for alcohol. I imagine they would make a killing. Imagine college seniors trading in their last set of textbooks and getting a alcohol voucher and a complementary glass of champagne. They are already heavily in debt so the meager sum would not be worth too much to them, the store would likely be able to make a little money on the textbook resale through less than standard practices, and you instantly become the#1 choice for students in the area.

Given the inventiveness of students as well as the power of the internet, there are steps being made to remedy this problem. Sites such as Half.com or Coursesmart are helping students find alternatives to the high prices of the university bookstore. Half.com is an ebay alternative that is a resource that connects sellers and buyers for textbooks across the nation as well as companies that are selling at reduced prices. Coursesmart provides online copies of the text for download or online access to the text at greatly reduced prices. The online aspect is interesting, especially given that eReaders are becoming more and more prevalent. I would have to agree with my Information Systems professor that the eReaders may have the ability to replace the traditional textbooks if the publishers can agree (as it stands they are making too much money to abandon the industry) to publish ebooks. This is not stopping students who have set up lots of torrent sites to share electronic versions of textbooks even using crudely scanned versions to avoid the bookstores. As a proponent of a free market systems, I cannot help but applaud these entrepreneurs, but it is adding to the problem. With less students paying full prices for books, there has to be a reaction by the industry to raise prices to compensate and force university professors to adopt new versions. Again, I applaud professors for taking notice and taking steps to really take the students’ best interests in education to heart. Some professors (like a couple that I’m taking currently) have decided to use older editions of the texts because the information is essentially identical.

Eventually however, we will come to a crossroads, where the controllers of information will make the decision to either side with the people or make money charging us for every penny we have. (I’m alluding heavily to the issues with net neutrality here). The textbooks will either be phased out to a richer, more interactive medium that supports the education system, or there will be blood of executives in the streets as the students and professors stand together to quash the elitist, exclusivity that the publishers promote.

Stand Tall Comrades!!! Together we can combat this oppressive system!!

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On a not altogether unrelated note, Amazon.com has made some great strides as far as buyback and student relations. You can get Amazon Prime (free two day shipping on Amazon items) with and .edu email account as a student and they have a pretty extensive buyback program that is easy to use. Not guaranteeing that all your books are going to be bought back or that it is the best price, but it is super convenient, reliable, and easy to use. That’s my commercial for today.

Amazon BuyBack