Higher Education Takes Two Quick Jabs to the Jaw

While Mark Taylor’s  Crisis on Campus was seen as a sucker punch to the entrenched higher education establishment, two recent quick jabs to the jaw of higher education have them again reeling and circling the wagons.

CNN’s rather scathing report on liberal arts institutions and the dismal employment prospects of their grads–cleaning out garbage cans–can hardly be uplifting. Probably more disturbing were the YouTube vignettes on liberal arts education, many produced by their own graduates, that damn the experience. Every time a respected faculty, dean or president trumpets the value of knowledge and the mind, their rascally grads parody it on YouTube.

The other jab was landed by Arum and Roksa in their book Academically Adrift, which suggested that the first two years of college were wasted and that some students graduated not very different from when they entered college. Like the true scholars they are, my friends quickly pointed to all the flaws. Yes, the College Learning Assessment has problems (I chose not to use it in an earlier study because of them). Certainly the sample was probably skewed or jerry-rigged in some way so that the results were misleading. While Arum, Roksa, Taylor, and all the others soon to follow (you can expect a consistent bashing of tenure, silos, and institutional entrenchment since the 1400s, over the next few years) will be stewed, pickled, and shredded, the problems are in the public arena and they are not going to be so easily washed away. Not with college costing so much and with expectations so high that college will lead to gainful and lasting employment. At this time I can make two points based on what we know about the transition from college to work by most young adults.

1. Many students are aimless. Arum and Roksa commend liberal arts colleges for the higher gains in student learning but the CNN story points to a real problem. Many of these students have a difficult time translating their knowledge, skills and competencies into thought, ideas and statements that bring value to the world outside academe. Many of them have little idea of what they want to do or how to go about doing it. Faculty have to help with the translation and the context; they have to value work experience in a way that makes sense in a learning context. The problem is probably more serious at large public universities where, after the first year, students seldom interact with another adult until they enter the workforce. CNN’s report is ugly as it has no perception of the broader scope of the issue. The bottom line is that we have to challenge students to think about what they want to do, provide learning experiences that contribute to that goal, and then assist them in framing their learning for the world off campus (sounds like Robert Kagan to me and something higher ed has professed for centuries–we just lose sight of what is important).

2. The mantle has been passed. High school, created to provide educated workers to the manufacturing economy, now has become the place to prepare students for post k-12 education of some sort (apprenticeships, certifications, 2-year, 4-year programs). Society and the transformed economy which depends on intellectual capacity have tapped higher education as the preparer of the workforce. This is not a mantle that higher education has yet accepted for the most part (for-profits sure have) and faculty feel that “preparing workers” is not their responsibility. This realignment is causing shifts—some subtle, some overt—that cannot be avoided. More public attention will be focused on higher education to insure that colleges provide the education that is needed in the workplace and there will be more accountability on what colleges and universities produce in terms of human capital—you can count on that.