Lessons From American Express

The luxury-focused credit card's struggles with millennials suggests that status is a transitory concept -- with implications for postsecondary credentials, Ryan Craig argues.

April 21, 2017
 
 

“Don’t Leave Home Without It” is an advertising slogan made famous by American Express. In the context of higher education, if you care about getting a good job, the thing you wouldn’t want to leave home without today is a bachelor’s degree.

The college premium -- the income jump the typical student sees upon completing a bachelor’s degree -- has become conventional wisdom, as are studies and media reports showing that while short-term certificate programs are being “pushed by community colleges and other higher education institutions,” they “provide almost no financial return to students.” As a result, pathways to jobs that might be faster and/or cheaper are regarded as low status and only worthy of consideration for those who can’t get into -- or more likely can’t afford -- a four-year bachelor’s degree program.

But hold on a moment. Almost everything is getting faster and less expensive. Watching a movie used to require going to the theater or video store. Now virtually every film worth watching is available from home. Cars appear at the touch of a button. Dates are arranged by swiping right. With one click, Amazon will deliver any of 500 million products to your door.

Millennials and Generation Z expect speed and convenience as a matter of course. So, for young people, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of modern American life is that education has hardly changed at all. Sure, students utilize technology at home and in class, although across primary, secondary and postsecondary education, technology remains supplemental to chalk-and-talk practices as old as the hills. And at least through high school, the forces of acceleration are counterbalanced by the prolonging of adolescence by helicopter parents and well-meaning educators.

But once teens leave for college and begin making independent decisions, why wouldn’t they seek a faster, cheaper pathway to real life rather than spending four years attempting to earn 120 credits and a bachelor’s degree? Isn’t it possible that faster and cheaper alternatives to college will become sought after?

Based on what’s happening to American Express, this could happen in short order. According to The New York Times, in the last seven months the credit card that for generations has “defined ostentatious luxury and capitalist striving” and charged cardholders up to $7,500 annually has lost its status among millennials. Since launching last August, the competing Chase Sapphire Reserve card has already signed up more than a million cardholders, half of whom are under 35. Sapphire Reserve provides a sign-up bonus of 100,000 points and accelerated travel points. It’s faster and cheaper.

It’s also less ostentatious. As the Times points out, while American Express has essentially sold snob appeal for decades (“Membership Has Its Privileges” -- sound familiar, colleges and universities?), “for millennials, snobbery isn’t quite as appealing as it once was. Or more precisely, snobbery has to be hidden and camouflaged as something else, like an Instagram post from your Iceland spelunking adventure or a lament about how hard it is to find a charging station near Burning Man for your electric sports car.”

As one focus group respondent quoted in the Times article notes, “An Amex says you’re rich, but [Sapphire Reserve] says you’re interesting.”

***

One of the strengths of American Express over the years has been its bundled travel services. Cardholders can access Amex concierges to book travel and restaurants, and they can even help out “if you leave your reading glasses inside a hotel room in Budapest.”

But as the Times points out, “Millennials don’t really need travel agents or concierges: they have Priceline and Yelp. Nor are they traditionally fans of opera, ballet, Dom Pérignon tastings or the other high-culture events Amex can get cardholders into. If you leave your reading glasses in Budapest, it’s probably faster to order new ones from Warby Parker, which is pretty cheap to begin with.”

According to the creator of Sapphire Reserve, “The message we send is, this isn’t your father’s credit card. For millennials, travel might mean taking an Uber to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Chinatown, and then riding the subway to karaoke, and then catching a taxi home. So we’re going to give you accelerated travel points on all that. This is a card for accumulating experiences.”

Millennials and Gen Z are in a rush to accumulate experiences -- including and especially work experience. According to New America, today’s students enroll for very practical reasons: to improve employment opportunities (91 percent), to make more money (90 percent) and to get a good job (89 percent). So it may just take one or more innovative approaches to faster and cheaper to generate a Sapphire-size wave in higher education.

While I’ll be exploring the contours of the most promising models in future pieces, I’m certain they won’t look anything like traditional community college certificate programs or associate degrees. And they’ll all provide a much higher degree of connectivity to work experience than we’ve ever seen before. As these innovative new pathways to good first jobs proliferate, millennials, who are more interested in accumulating experience and being interesting than rich, are certain to follow.

The logic that leads us to disregard alternatives to college today is pretty much tautological: if every student with the requisite talent and grit to do well in the 21st-century market economy chooses an Amex, then by definition American Express cardholders will have higher incomes than other cardholders.

Same thing with bachelor’s degrees: by definition the road not taken will have inferior results. The question we should be asking is what faster and cheaper pathways will achieve when, like Sapphire Reserve, they gain status equal to Amex-like colleges and universities and attract comparable talent.

We’re about to find out. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if millennials and Gen Z who begin opting for alternatives in order to be interesting and gain experience become richer as well. (They’ll certainly be less indebted, not to mention more informed and motivated when it comes to deciding on additional postsecondary education beyond their entry-level job.)

Sapphire Reserve demonstrates that status is mutable and always mutating. While disregarded today, faster and cheaper pathways to good first jobs are on their way to becoming a Sapphire-like status symbol. The result will be a muting of the economic and social power of colleges and universities that refuse to adapt.

Bio

Ryan Craig is managing director of University Ventures, a firm reimagining the future of higher education and creating new pathways from education to employment.

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