One of my business partners is an agent for basketball players in the NBA and Euroleague. He also happens to be a great storyteller, so I get to hear all sorts of Jerry Maguire type stories. Professional players are a high-maintenance bunch, and the agent has to play many roles to satisfy them. The players are often very young, so the agent also has the job of developing and nurturing talent, not just managing it.

Here are some of the roles that agents need to play:

  1. Recruiting students, offering them this, that and the other.
  1. Working with the player so that he/she understands the short term and long term goals and commits to a plan of development.
  1. Finding the right trainers and coaches to develop specific psychological and physical skills.
  1. Finding the right education for the player (many of the European league players go to college while playing pro).
  1. Making sure the player stays focused through school and training.
  1. Getting the best nutrition and medical staff for the player.
  1. Finding the best training camps for the player.
  1. Finding the best home – geographically and professionally, once the player is ready to be “employed”.
  1. Making sure that the player has the best financial advisors to keep lifestyle within budget.

For all the sleazy reputations that sports agents have, it seems that players get a pretty sweet deal. Compared to the usual high school graduate, they have it great. Is there a person or institution to do all (or even some) of the above for college students?

Universities certainly market themselves as providing some of these services, at least implicitly. But due to the disparate priorities of universities large and small, the onus is on the student to seek out the education, support, skills and services. In other words, nobody is really watching the student’s back.

As a business thought experiment I tried to re-imagine the university as a talent agency.

Here goes:

  1. Let’s skip the recruitment phase because it is already very similar: requiring a lot of posturing and promises by the university/talent agency.
  1. Working with the student so that he/she understands the short term and long term goals and commits to a plan of development.

Currently, there’s not much big picture planning happening at a university, unless a student is in a tightly controlled program such as engineering.

I’m not sure that the answer should be in creating a whole administrative layer of “guidance counselors”. This is very expensive and of questionable efficiency. I think that there are two ways to make this guidance happen at a university. One is technology: an off-the-shelf career path planning solution (these are starting to pop up). And if there is not one that is already targeted at students, or one that is amenable to adaptation, then a project management software such as Basecamp can be used to set up the milestones in a student’s “career”.

A more organic way to communicate and encourage learning and career path management is to actually foster daily engagement between university staff and student. Specifically, if students are in class doing more than just listening — actually collaborating and working on projects, under the supervision and management of university staff — then a constant communication of goals and aspiration can be applied between “manager” and student. In other words, if faculty/staff are in constant engagement with the students, they are in a position to support, mentor, and advise the students.

  1. Finding the right trainers and coaches to develop specific psychological and physical skills.

In order to prescribe a solution, we must first know the problem. Universities generally have such a great lag on student assessment that unless there’s a proactive professor or a proactive student (who seeks tutoring) underachieving students don’t get extra attention.

Furthermore, the assessment that is normally used is testing – which, more often than not, only tests whether the student is a good test taker.

I know of only one way to consistently (hourly/daily/weekly) assess a student’s understanding of a concept: projects. If the student can apply the lessons from class, great! Not only is the student assessed, but also much more likely to retain the knowledge. If the student is unable to apply the lessons, then either it was a bad lesson, or the student needs extra help. Once again, if the extra help comes within the context of a project, then the help will be more effective and more long lasting (as countless studies on applied learning tell us).

A project manager who has consistent interaction with the student, like a coach, knows the student’s strengths and needs. This person can prescribe, and daily adjust, the best cocktail of learning and experiences.

The two necessary parts to this assessment-assignment equation are a project and a manager. The solution, once again, is engagement. And as the student’s agent, the university should assure maximum engagement. Not for one month or for one semester, but for all students, all the time.

  1. Finding the right education for the student.

Even huge and rich universities are usually rigid with the type of learning they provide. Smaller universities may not have the resources to offer options, even if they intended.

Aggregation of and access to multiple tools and resources lends itself to agency. If a student were lacking in language skills, perhaps an accelerated Rosetta Stone class would do the trick. If a student is lacking information, perhaps a Coursera or MITx online class will bring the student up to speed. If the student needs a specific skill set, then a short, targeted Linda class will offer instruction and some guided practice. If the student is disorganized or has difficulty communicating, a weekend project management workshop will help, and more team projects will help with communication.

The more tools a university can offer to the student, the better the student will be served. An agent is open to a plug and play method of problem solving – finding not just “our” solution, but the best solution. Today, if a student lands in a class with an ineffective (or incompatible) professor, the university’s best answer is to simply say: “drop the class”. An agency model would allow the university to offer a much greater depth of academic and experiential solutions within a given subject. If combined with a mission of personalization, the agency university can give the student a greater choice, as well as more guidance and curation. Technology is making strides towards personalized learning – an agency operational model would align a university with this exciting trend.

“Skills” are the latest talk at education conferences. Employers have greater expectations and are looking for specific competencies in their entry-level hires. This new employment landscape requires that students get specific and adaptive guidance to prepare them for an increasingly competitive and fickle job market. A talent agent knows exactly the skills and fashions that are required for success in a current market – that is a critical part of the job. Similarly, a university that steps out of the academic bubble and is able to engage tools to offer its students demand-based skills and competencies is offering its students a huge advantage.

  1. Making sure the student stays focused through school and training.

This target goal is mainly driven by incentives. At the current university, incentives are too often completely misaligned: faculty focuses on research; administration focuses on development and rankings; students focus on partying. This makes it a hard place to achieve student goals of growth, learning, and experience.

In contrast, an agent’s success is so closely tied to the player’s that the incentives are aligned by default. If the student underperforms, the agent will be right there looking for solutions. In fact, agents have learned to try to pre-empt any foreseeable problems. They don’t wait for the player to have a bad game – they are on the phone with the player after every game, gauging the player’s mental and psychic health.

A university that has a similar approach to students would ensure daily maximization of the student’s potential, both through positive reinforcement and academic solutions. Once again, the answer is engagement. If the university is structured via technology and experiential projects to engage daily with the student, then the tools would be at the university’s disposal to make sure that the student is motivated and focused.

A proactive university is also a more challenging one. Making sure the student is adequately challenged is just as important as making sure the student is getting adequate support.

  1. Getting the best nutrition and medical staff for the player.

American universities have been moving towards a focus on the “student experience” for several decades. As a result, student services are something that American universities do fairly well. They usually offer excellent facilities for sports and fitness, and encourage social groups and activities (along with providing dining and medical services). Occasionally, a bulk of the funds are diverted from focus on individual students to grand and expensive professional athletic programs, which is not always optimal.

  1. Finding the best training camps for the player.

These days, many agree that students need some real industry engagement and competency-building while at university. The current “go to” solution for student “training camps” are internships.

Internships are tough. Each internship is a complex relationship that requires management. Is the student getting something out of it? Or is he sweeping floors and filing papers? Is the employer happy, or is the student too unqualified to be productive?

If a university has 30,000 students and has a goal of placing every student into an internship, it would need an army of hundreds of career agents. Some rich universities are able to provide a portion of this effort, but most don’t even try. The responsibility for finding internship opportunities is usually placed upon the student. Once again, it’s the students that are best prepared that will get the most support. Meanwhile, the laissez-faire stance of the university means that student-industry engagement will remain very low.

Thus, in order to act as an agent to adequately prepare students for the real world, the university needs better, and more scalable, tools for industry engagement than internships. The university needs to take a more proactive role.

  1. Finding the best home – geographically and professionally, once the student is ready to be “employed“.

Universities have for a long time promoted the value of their degrees in the marketplace. The elite institutions rest on their laurels and often promote themselves as grand networking destinations. The rest of the universities rely on small and underfunded career services departments that are so disintegrated from the rest of the university that most students don’t even use them as a resource.

The university that sees the industry as the real world, which students face upon graduation, will be better positioned to present the student to that real world. The brand of the university should be industry-friendly. The university should have facilitated industry engagement throughout the student’s college career. The university should have allowed industry to influence the “training” portion of the student’s education.

If the university has done all of the above to engage industry full time (and not just at graduation time), there will be a natural bridge for the student into the best employment opportunities.

  1. Making sure that the player has the best financial advisors to keep lifestyle within budget.

The best corollary to this function of the talent agent would be the university’s ability to provide continuing education and support to its graduates. By continuing engagement post-graduation (beyond asking for alumni donations) the university can offer necessary resources to make sure that the graduates are achieving maximum success and adapting to ever-changing industries. A combination of a broad digital and global footprint would make the university’s resources easily accessible to graduates at all stages of their careers.