THE BLOG
12/01/2010 06:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What I Learned From MTV's Quixotic Adventures in Education Reform

I'm a lucky guy. I get to spend my days working with many of the brightest minds in media, solely focused on how MTV can empower America's youth to have an impact on the biggest issues they face as a generation. However, early last year, my colleagues and I encountered the most confounding challenge of our careers: How can we help more American kids get a quality education?

It's a question many of our country's greatest minds have grappled with, and had difficulty answering, for a generation. How were we at MTV -- progenitors of the music video, Beavis and Butthead, and Jersey Shore -- supposed to fare any better? Failure wasn't an option. Our parent company, Viacom, had just launched a new five year campaign with the Gates Foundation called Get Schooled, which aims to increase high school graduation rates, improve college readiness, and raise college completion rates. If the campaign was going to achieve these ambitious goals, we knew MTV would have to play a big part.

So one day last spring, I sat down with a group of ironically-dressed pop culture aficionados and set out to fix American education. First we tried to come up with "silver bullet" solutions that would puncture the biggest challenges. We spit-balled unrealistic show ideas that would help "make education cool." We dreamt up PSA campaigns that would encourage high school and college students to "hang in there" and stick it out to graduation. At the end of the session, it was clear we had nothing.

We were paralyzed by the enormity of the task. Every 26 seconds a high school student drops out. One-third of American students fail to graduate high school. Less than 60 percent of those pursing a baccalaureate degree finish college within six years -- and so on. But then, calling on lessons we learned decades ago in algebra class, we started breaking these unruly equations (national dropout rate, rapidly increasing cost of higher education) down into smaller parts. We saw more manageable challenges -- and compelling opportunities -- emerge.

We learned that while difficulty paying for college is a key reason many students fail to graduate, one in five don't even fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- the first step towards securing any of the $70 billion in financial aid the federal government distributes each year. Further, over $3 billion in private scholarships are available to college students each year. And there have never been more student loan forgiveness programs than there are now.

At the same time, we thought hard about MTV's assets and how we could have the greatest impact. Our broad reach, storytelling abilities and cultural cache aren't well suited to untangling disputes between administrators and teachers unions, or advocating for broad based policy changes. But our strengths, if properly channeled, could absolutely help a bunch of college students overcome some key barriers they face on the road to graduation. After careful analysis and consultation with our partners at the Gates Foundation, we decided to focus MTV's initial education efforts on driving college completion. Understanding that's a vast issue unto itself, we tightened the aperture even further to start with college affordability.

So now we're not trying to fix American education, but rather help college students navigate what can be a confusing financial aid maze. Still no easy task, but much more manageable than where we started.

The next step was obvious: partner with students from the outset. Past campaigns that have addressed everything from cyberbullying to the genocide in Darfur have shown us that the best ideas typically come from our audience. And who understands the failings of our current financial aid system better than college students?

It was also imperative to have best-in-class experts guiding our efforts, so we reached out to one of the most respected authorities on college success: the College Board. This led to an unexpected partnership and the launch of the Get Schooled: College Affordability Challenge. MTV and the College Board have joined forces -- with support from the Gates Foundation and frog design -- and invited young people nationwide to imagine innovative digital tools that simplify the financial aid process. The tool we end up developing will effectively serve as a "digital Sherpa," helping those in greatest need connect with money to finance their education all the way to completion.

The individual or team who wins the College Affordability Challenge will get $10,000 and see their idea brought to life with a budget of up to $100,000, as well as made available to every student in the country. The deadline to submit an idea is December 17. Regardless of who wins, we're excited to know the final tool will be for college students, from college students -- and we hope it'll help bring us one step closer to the ultimate goal of returning America to the top spot in college completion.

The path we travelled to get here has been winding and thicket-filled; the way forward is even less certain. Along the way, I've learned that if we at MTV -- and everyone working to improve American education -- are willing to break these huge challenges down into smaller parts, embrace multi-disciplinary collaboration, and always make sure we're amplifying students' voices as part of the process, we can only move forward.