The debate rages on as to whether all students should go to college. Graduation rates vary widely by state, from an abysmal 22% (Alaska) to a more promising 69% (Massachusetts) [NCHEMS]. So that means somewhere between one third and three quarters of college attendees don’t graduate with a degree.  As The New York Times recently pointed out in the article “Plan B: Skip College,” that’s a lot of money to end up without a degree. College isn’t for everyone. More vocational training and 2-year degrees should be available.

That said, I’m still a fan of college.  And since my 25th Reunion is fast approaching, I’ve ruminated on several reasons why.

  1. Time to Grow Up.  College gives you wide berth and time to mature. Honestly, who is ready for a career at 17? ‘Nuf said.
  2. Roommates.  Dealing with strangers up close and personal is a serious challenge, especially for those of us who grew up without siblings. But it’s an ideal course in inter-personal relations and negotiation. Not to mention setting boundaries.
  3. Professors. Learning how to navigate the power relationship of professor-student, particular in the smaller courses where one sees them as individuals, is an excellent primer in dealing with clients or bosses in the future.
  4. Lack of Sleep. Surmounting an often self-induced lack of sleep to deliver a term paper or passing exam grade is excellent preparation for working motherhood or fatherhood. There is nothing like a baby with an ear ache all night to make participating in a morning meeting a serious feat of super-human strength.
  5. Friendships. There are some friends you just know are there, no matter what, and many of these bonds are fired in the furnace of collegiate life.
  6. Extra-Curriculars. There’s nothing more extravagant and wonderful than the smorgasbord of activities offered at college. From the college radio station and newspaper to the medieval club and frisbee team, these choices offer lifelong memories, friendships, and ongoing interests.
  7. Connections. OK, for those of you who yearn for me to cover some “practical” side of college life: I have thousands of connections at my fingertips through my college alumni office as well as my own friends. And yes, connections help in life and work.
  8. Research.  If you don’t know how to learn something new, then you’re stuck recycling the old. It’s amazing how many people don’t know how to find out something, even with the crutch of Google and Wikis. College teaches you how to research information, and more importantly, how to assess the veracity and biases of your sources.
  9. Ideas.  College is not just about book learning or a list of facts to absorb or “career preparation.” It is about the world of ideas and the people who have them, including you. Engaging in the world of ideas is important preparation for life, promoting civic participation and a richer life, regardless of career.
  10. I couldn’t think of a 10th benefit of college, but I’ll bet you can!

With email, iPhones and Blackberrys, not to mention school and community list-serves, and buckets of emails for work and home, information is coming at us faster than we can say digital download. And now we’re expected to keep up with Facebook, Linked In and Twitter, too?  There’s simply no time!  Why should anyone want to use social media if they are already busy professionals?  More specifically…

Who Cares About Social Media?

If my customers, clients, donors or referral sources don’t care about social media, why should I?  It’s hard to imagine they don’t. Consider these facts (from Neilsen Research):

  • In March 2010, people spent an average of 6 hours per month on social networking sites, as compared to a little more than 2 hours two years ago.
  • 13.4 M Americans watch video on mobile phones.
  • There are roughly as many iPhone users 55 and older as there are 13-24.
  • 27 M Americans have listened to an audio podcast in the last month.
  • Unique Twitter Use was up 1,382%, with 7 Million users as of last February.
  • Facebook has more than 400 million users.
  • The fastest growing demographic on Facebook is Women Over 55.

Notice that if folks are spending 6 hours a month on SM, that’s about 12 minutes a day. That seems doable, right?

Stats are nice, but no serious business people care about social media, so why should I?

Given that more people are using social media than email (as of March, 2009-Neilsen again), corporations are taking notice. Forrester Research projects that companies will spend $3.1 billion on social media by 2014. Why? Because smart companies are using this cost-effective tool to build better relationships with clients, vendors and policymakers.  And frankly, nonprofits are way ahead, as they’ve learned how to leverage social media tools to reach donors and advocate issues directly to the public.

OK, fine, but we’re a [fill in the blank here] and not a multi-national corporation or a nonprofit with a cause. How can social media help us?

Social media can help a small firm compete with bigger players.  It allows businesses to offer added client value (content) in an information marketplace. And it can help you promote your personal brand and that of your organization. How? If you’re just getting started with SM, set up a Linked In account and join and follow two user groups—one related to your area of business and one related to the industry of one of your top clients.  Almost immediately, you’ll gain new professional contacts, access critical information, and be able to share resources with colleagues and clients.  Twitter is also an excellent resource for intel on best practices, thought leaders, and what your clients are up to or up against.  (Try Tweetdeck to customize your Twitter feed–it’s a handy tool to lay out tweets in columns so they are easier/faster to follow).

Fine. But people can bad-mouth us through social media.Who needs that?

Yep, they can. Possibly they already have. But how would you know if you aren’t using social media? At a bare minimum, set up a “Google Alert” for your own name and that of your firm, as well as for the names or issues of any key clients (Hint: you can remove any Google Alert once you don’t need it any more).  You will now be quickly informed via email on issues that affect your firm and your clients.

But what about our younger staff? We can’t just let them be “out there” on social media!

Well, first of all they already are. So to protect yourself, you need to have firm policy for social media use. In a survey of employers, the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics found that while one-fourth of companies have already had to discipline an employee, only 10% have a policy addressing social network sites. Don’t panic. There are  plenty of sample policies to choose from as a basis.  The Red Cross spent quite a bit of time thinking about their policy, for example, and you can benefit from their ideas.  Engage your stakeholders–management committee members & managing partners but also younger associates if you are a law firm, marketing folks and executive leadership as well as up-and-comers if you are another type of business.  Have a discussion about how SM can propel your organizational and personal professional development goals. Are you looking to attract new employees? To learn more about a  new client industry? Be more visible in the local community? Develop your strategy intentionally around goals and your social media outreach is more likely to deliver results.

There’s no question that social media takes some work to understand and eats up time.  The question is whether you can make it time well spent. I’ve had to accept the fact that I need to make time for social media, just as I did for email and the web.  I’m pretty sure other professionals will need to do the same.

The Tea Party has been slinging arrows at “the government,” a seemingly monolithic entity they accuse of being ineffective at best and downright evil at worst. For those of us who live in the Washington, D.C. region, and know real live people who labor each day in all three branches, it’s hard to muster this outrage and vision of incompetence and ill intent. We know people toiling to preserve our civil rights at the Justice Department.  And those working to preserve the quality of our farming soil at the Department of Agriculture. We know people researching case law at the Supreme Court and getting food and battle supplies to our soldiers overseas at the Defense Logistics Agency. And don’t forget those working round the clock to save the Gulf Coast from annihilation at The White House and a range of federal and local environmental agencies.

So why the poor brand for “the government”?

Partly responsible is a lack of civic education in our schools.  Do our children have much of a handle on how our three branches of government work? (Do their parents?!) Do they know what citizen activism really means or looks like, other than complaining? Or have we focused them so much on math and science scores that civics gets left behind?

Recent crises have offered a “teachable moment” for us all with a first-hand look at how government, while never perfect, serves to promote the common good. The Coast Guard rushed in to help when private industry–BP and its subcontractors–were not able to manage the oil spill situation.  Federal and local law enforcement worked together over a 52-hour period to catch a would-be terrorist bomber in New York. Our government even comes to the rescue when other governments fail. Case in point Haiti.

So why is our government brand such a failure?

Likely because it is so wide-ranging in focus and daily actions.  And ironically, because government funds tend to go more towards the doing and less towards the talking points.   Add to that the problem that when it is under-funded in key activities (FDA oversight of over-the-counter medication industry) because more funding goes to other government activities (war, Social Security), when failures occur–i.e. recent Tylenol recall–government is often blamed.  Kind of a no-win situation.

The good news is that government–at federal and local levels–is beginning to harness 21st century tools of communication both to conduct its work and to communicate better about it. The Obama administration has required more transparency in federal agencies, including posting of reports and information on public websites and communicating about initiatives through social media.  Multiple federal agencies are harnessing digital media for training capabilities, decreasing costs and improving reach.

It’s a start. But if government really wants to improve its brand, then it probably needs to dedicate more funding to civic education initiatives  along with a corollary of more pro-active communications efforts from every agency. Which would of course take funding away from real government action.

The end of this brand story is, well, up to us. The “we” in We the People. Here ends the rant!