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Rowe: Mr. Dunbar, yeah. He called me down, as millions of kids have been called down, to talk about my future. He was looking at some test scores and said, "You're not an idiot. You've got a shot at James Madison University in Maryland, maybe some other schools." I said, "I don't have any money, but more importantly, I don't have any idea what I want to do. So, while I figure that out, I thought I'd go to a community college." At which point he says, "Well, that's way below your potential," and pointed to the poster that said "Work Smart, Not Hard."
The thing about the poster wasn't just the bromide at the bottom. It was the image. On the left-hand side you've got a college graduate, recently matriculated, cap and gown, sun setting behind him, looking like he owns the world and the future. Next to him is a mechanic, holding a wrench, covered in grease or something worse, looking at the ground like he won the vocational consolation prize of all time. That was a very specific PR campaign for college, higher education.
reason: This was the late '70s?
Rowe: 1979, yeah. All PR campaigns always go too far, and they always, it seems, promote the thing they want to focus on at the expense of something else. Now, it's kind of egregious in education, but in my opinion, it shouldn't be shocking, because the best way to sell a truck is to talk about how lousy the competitor is. The best way to get elected is to talk about how creepy your opponent is. The best way to really promote college hard is to talk about how subordinate all the other opportunities are.
Now, as part of our ongoing campaign for the trades, we sell posters that say "Work Smart and Hard." I now play the role of the graduate standing there holding my degree looking somewhat confused by the industrial setting in which I find myself next to a far more aspirational tradesman. It's just another way to juxtapose these roles.
reason: What are the goals of the "Work Smart and Hard" campaign?
Rowe: We have to change the conversation and we have to challenge the existing protocol. The first thing is this general PR campaign around the trades. The second thing, there is a financial thing. The posters were only $10, but if I can get 20,000 or 30,000 of them hanging in guidance counselors' offices around the country, well that's fun. We take the money we raise, of course, and it goes into a foundation to keep the conversation going and to award what we call a work ethic scholarship.
reason: What is a work ethic scholarship?
Rowe: The scholarship business, as I understand it right now, rewards four basic things: intelligence, so you have academic scholarships; athleticism-if you can hit a three-pointer, we have money for you for days; talent, we reward talent; and of course need. Who's addressing work ethic? Who's affirmatively trying to reward the behavior we want to encourage? The behavior that mikeroweWORKS wants to at least talk about redounds to two things: the willingness to learn a useful skill and the willingness to work your ass off. Combined, we think that is something that ought to be affirmatively rewarded.
reason: When did the idea disappear that you should learn a skill that is actually useful or in need, and that you should work hard?
Rowe: That's a good question for a real social anthropologist. My own opinion is just that there's a kind of inertia that most parents would agree exists, and it's the desire to see something better for your kids than you had. The question is: What is better? Is it better right now today to have $140,000 in debt but a degree from Georgetown in law? Or is it better to be that kid I described up in Butler? I don't know. But there is an inertia that says the first one is a better thing.
reason: Let's talk a little bit about the college loan scam. You talk about how there's a trillion dollars in debt. Most of that principal will be paid off by the people who take the loans. But you're against the idea of taxpayer-supported loans for going to college.
Rowe: We hold the note. Whether I'm against it or not, I get a little curious about when it gets to a trillion dollars. If we are lending money that ostensibly we don't have to kids who have no hope of making it back in order to train them for jobs that clearly don't exist, I might suggest that we've gone around the bend a little bit.
reason: And pumping that extra money into the system allows colleges to raise their prices.
Rowe: Of course. The cost of a degree has increased so exponentially, I can't believe it's not daily news. Imagine any other commodity increasing at that rate.