My husband can be very stubborn. Don’t let him fool you in this picture.
When he published his first novel, he quietly started the next one. I told him he wasn’t getting off the hook that easily. So, I pulled him away long enough to get him to answer five questions about his latest book, College or Not?
Steph: What inspired the idea for College or Not?
Chad: Back in 2013, I was finished with the military, and I started designing educational apps. Along the way, I saw the challenges that students were facing in regards to choosing colleges, majors, careers, and all the trouble that came with finding a job afterward.
All we have to do is glance at the stats. There is over $1.3 trillion of student debt, and it’s projected to be $3.3 trillion by 2020. The average student has over $35,000 in debt, and many are only able to find work in a field completely unrelated to their major. The cost of college has gone up roughly 400% since the eighties. On college campuses, depression, prescription drug abuse, and suicides rates are increasing.
To fix this, I first thought an app was in order, so I built one called College Majors. When I was looking at the statistics and data we were using I found that there was so much selection bias, and none of these popular majors were going to keep producing a good ROI. In many ways, technology oriented bootcamps are the new undergraduates degrees. Along the way, I realized the best way to help solve the problem wasn’t another app. I decide the perfect technology to help students, teachers, and parents was through a fictional story.
Steph: How did all of your research get turned into a plot and story? Did any personal experiences inspire the book?
Chad: The story evolved over time. At first, I just had an idea for a protagonist who was struggling with finding what he should do with his life. Over time, I developed his character and then threw plenty of challenges his way. In college, I had the hardest time choosing a major. I was so hungry for guidance, inspiration, or for a role model to show me how to direct the ambition I had. This led me to try a variety of different majors, I dropped out of school once, and finally returned to finish three years of college in a year a half. When I entered the real world, I finally was willing to look at the truth, the opportunities I wanted didn’t require a degree. Along the way, I worked everywhere from a Hedge Fund to the Army Infantry, and I deployed twice. Many of my struggles and experiences helped influence the characters in College or Not? The final inspiration for the book came when I left the military and taught myself design. The more I learned about the technology industry, the more I discovered opportunities where college wasn’t a requirement.
Steph: Tell us a bit about the main character, and his sidekick. At times, they seem like your average teenager or millennial, and other times, they don’t?
Chad: The protagonist is Jay Pencha, a high school senior from a middle-class family. His best friend is Gary Weinstein, who is from a family of technology entrepreneurs. Jay is an average high school senior while Gary is incredibly eccentric. Jay has struggled his whole life by being judged against his conventionally successful older brother. His parents and school are pushing him to go to the same prestigious P&C College, where his older brother went. But Jay’s hungry to find something to do with his life that matters, and he’s not sure that Gavin is as “successful” as everyone else thinks. When his family faces some serious challenges, Jay gets thrust outside his comfort zone. He no longer has the luxury of waiting to decide what he’ll do after high school, he has to figure everything out right now.
Steph: What about the other characters in the book? Were they influenced by any real people?
Chad: Yes, Mr. Moore is a teacher at Jay and Gary’s high school. He’s also a veteran, who might not be a “nice” teacher, but he challenges his class. Instead of a college prep class, he teaches a course called, “College or Not?” In a single year, it’s designed to prepare students with the skills they need to succeed in the new economy. He was inspired by many of the mentors I had in the military, and my Mom and Dad, who have both been teachers.
Ella is a girl that Jay’s had a crush on for years. He’s finally built up the courage to talk to her regularly, but she’s the opposite of him. She’s decisive and headed for P&C College. She was influenced… partly by you, the opposite of me when it came to college. I had fun writing about her character because she schemes long and hard about how to make college work for her, and not the other way around. I think many students might find themselves in a situation similar to hers.
Gavin Pencha is Jay’s older brother. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot here, but let’s say he’s jumped through all the hoops. He got the A’s, went to the right college, played sports, and was a perfect student. On the surface, it looks like it all worked out for him. In reality, conforming to others expectations of us always carries serious trade-offs.
Mr. Pemberton is the school guidance counselor, and in many ways, he’s the bad guy. He’s an expert on how the world used to work, and doesn’t realize how much things have changed. He is dogmatically obsessed with getting as many students as possible into college. He’s not thinking about the long term consequences and epiphenomena of blindly selling college degrees. He feels good about himself, and in his mind that’s all that matters.
Ryan Parker is the CEO of one of the technology companies that Jay and Gary go visit. He’s inspired by several entrepreneurs and venture capitalists I’ve met. Many people think these guys and gals are ruthless or coldhearted. I’ve found it’s the opposite. For example, I was speaking at an event for veterans this year, and one of the other speakers was Chase Jarvis. He’s the co-founder and CEO of Creative Live. He has an incredible resume: art director, photographer, author, and now is the CEO of Creative Live. After talking and hanging out with him, it’s easy to see how focused he is on being in the present moment, listening intently, and being helpful. The more entrepreneurs I meet like Chase, the more I’m inspired.
Steph: Do you think our education system and college are broken?
Yes, in many ways the system is an isolation from the real world. In school and college, you get degrees. But in the real world, you’re going to be asked much harder questions like, “How can you help me right now” and, “What skills do you have?”
One of the broken concepts in the system is that you need to prepare for a single career. Instead of teaching students valuable skills, education is focused on forcing them into one long, expensive, elaborate track towards a single career. After you’ve specialized so much, sunk a ton of money, and not had time to learn the basics… surprise! Now you’re trapped in that single career for decades or more. Of course everyone is semi-free to choose, but the weight of debt is heavy. Besides, that traditional path of competing for traditional and standardized jobs no longer leads to a good place. If technology has taught us anything, it’s that jobs that can be standardized will be replaced or automated by technology. I’m an advocate that focusing on learning skills is rarely a bad idea. It’s only through layering and combining valuable skills that you can become irreplaceable to employers. Whether it’s jobs in energy, space, medical diagnostics, preventative medicine, dirty jobs, coding, design, or robotics, there are high paying opportunities all over the place. This is a rare chance where we have an opportunity to choose work that directly impacts and uplifts all of humanity. There are quick entry points into all these fields that take only a few months.
Steph: Are you against college? Is this an anti-college story?
Chad: I’m not against college, but I am against public education aggressively selling minors bad investments. The results of this are shown in the student debt and underemployment numbers. I don’t think the answer to the dogma of, “you must go to college” is, “you must not go to college.” Instead, I think a better non-fundamental question should be, “how free and informed are students to choose?” The book’s title is purposefully worded as a question. Advice is cheap, but asking better questions can be priceless. I think fiction is the best vehicle to spark better questions. This is a story of friendship, exploration, hard choices, and making it in the real world. I believe students need more stories where the protagonist fights through trials, and blazes their own trail. Far too many books these days are dystopian or nihilistic. Asking better questions is an art, and I’m advocating that students be more free to ask and choose.
Steph: It’s Graduation time. What advice do you have for students?
Chad: Be very careful about taking advice! It’s rare that someone knows your life and experiences so well that they can provide contextual advice. There can be great pieces of general advice, but it’s always up to the listener to carefully weigh what they hear. The world economy is changing so rapidly, so my advice to students would be don’t believe anyone. Prove things to yourself. Do your research when choosing a college or an alternative. We can use technology to, “prove” things to ourselves, but so often we only use it to consume. If you’re having a hard time choosing what major, college, or alternative to college you want to pursue, don’t be afraid to go talk to people doing what you’re looking into. We’re allowed to reach out to whoever we want on the internet. A few years ago, I was thinking about beginning a PhD program. Instead of taking anyone’s advice, I decided to prove whether or not the program was valuable. So, I reached out to all the recent graduates. I quickly found that none of them were excited or glad that they now had their PhD’s. They all seemed worried, or frustrated. My entire PhD would have been paid for by the GI Bill, but after I calculated the opportunity cost, I realized it still was a negative ROI. Instead of the PhD, I read hundreds of books, traveled across the country, taught myself design, launched apps and products, and built up an array of experiences. That exploration created exciting opportunities that I never could have predicted beforehand. If you’re always willing to ask better questions, challenge yourself, and see yourself as the hero or heroine in your own story, then you can’t lose.
Steph: Thanks for reading everyone, we hope you enjoyed the interview!