As a dynamic and creative public relations agency, Weber Shandwick is always looking for the best and brightest, but where do our future bright stars come from and how are they educated? Is a college degree the currency in our labor market that it once was or are other learning programs and real-life experience challenging our traditional higher education model? When we talk of the value of higher education, the added layer is the cost. There is more student loan debt than credit card debt in the U.S. With public funding being slashed for universities and tuition rates on the rise, are students and businesses getting the best rate of return from higher ed?

These questions and more are being raised through a collaborative series of events, “Hacking Edu: From Tower to Town Square,” presented by Four Peaks and powered by UW’s MCDM this April (Disclosure: Weber Shandwick is a proud sponsor). The goal of Hacking Edu is to boldly re-imagine higher education through a month-long crowdsourced response.

I had the pleasure of attending the kick-off of Hacking Edu last week with a crowd-sourcing of ideas and a conversation between John Cook, co-founder of Geekwire, and Ben Huh, head of Cheezburger Inc. Both appropriately raised more questions than they answered as they discussed their personal experience and attitudes on what makes higher education valuable and how it currently serves or underserves our economy.

So what is the value of college and how can we change the system to create more value? The conversation between Cook and Huh highlighted the social value of the college experience, the networks that it provides, and the social glue that a collective experience can offer. But in our super “social” world, do we need to take out student loans in order to build a network? I think not.

I know my stellar network has come from my professional experience and determination, not from my alumni network, but that doesn’t mean my college education isn’t valuable. A college degree is still a critical social signal for businesses. I know my master’s degree has opened up doors for me, even if I don’t use my extensive knowledge of Russian intellectual history in my day-to-day work at Weber Shandwick. If the conversation at Hacking Edu was any indication, the value of the college degree is waning for businesses who are demanding new approaches and practical experience and, for students, who are creating their own learning opportunities and crafting careers beyond the normal path of a high-priced four-year degree.

Hacking Edu is a vital community conversation with an ambitious goal – sourcing one great idea to improve higher education and garnering the support to make it happen. I look forward to the rest of the series. Interested? Get engaged on Thursday, April 19 for Hacking Edu on Four Peaks TV and the culmination event on Thursday, April 25 with Peter Diamandis, CEO of X PRIZE.

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