Bentley University president discusses her new book on preparing students for success.

October 3, 2017

Colleges face scrutiny -- from would-be students, their parents and politicians -- over whether they are preparing students for careers. Gloria Cordes Larson has focused on these issues at Bentley University, a business-oriented institution that also takes pride in the general education students receive. Her new book, PreparedU: How Innovative Colleges Drive Student Success (Jossey-Bass), is something of a guide for colleges -- including those institutions far less focused on business than is Bentley -- to how to respond to the demands in this area. The book is also a critique of higher education, suggesting that many academics have failed to focus on these issues. The name comes from programs at Bentley that Larson has championed.

Larson responded via email to questions about her new book.

Q: What are the current practices that aren’t working, that are resulting in some graduates failing to find a good spot in the job market?

A: When I speak with business leaders, I find there is a disconnect between how colleges educate undergraduates and the reality of how business operates today, particularly in regard to positions where the required skills cross traditional job-description boundaries. A business graduate, for example, needs to know the technical skills of their discipline, but that is no longer enough on its own. Critical thinking, complex problem solving, empathy, creativity and communication skills are all necessary in today’s work environment. This is why more and more schools are finding creative ways to integrate the arts and sciences with professional and technical skills.

Employers are point-blank telling us they need college graduates who have mastered soft skills in addition to the hard, industry-specific technical skills. They are looking for employees who understand big data or business development, but according to research from Bentley University’s PreparedU Project, a whopping 92 percent of employers rank critical thinking and the ability to analyze issues as “important” or “very important” to success. Additionally, 87 percent of those employers emphasize the importance of verbal and written communication and presentation skills, and 91 percent want employees who can work collaboratively within a team. To fulfill that need, universities must provide opportunities, as part of the educational experience, that teach students skills like team and relationship building, understanding emotional intelligence, and participating in leadership roles.

Career services is a crucial element to a graduate’s success. A mistake that students and some universities make is introducing career services on the way out the door as graduation and “real life” near. That’s too late. Career services needs to start as soon as students arrive on campus.

Q: How should the curriculum be changed to make students better prepared?

A: This question goes to the core of the book and what everyone in higher education should be asking themselves -- how can we best prepare today’s young adults for a successful career and a happy life? This is especially important at a time when a fast-changing global and digital economy is forcing students to prepare for jobs after graduation that may not even exist yet. The key is to be innovative and adaptable -- these are skills that can be taught. I believe it all begins with an approach that combines left-brain and right-brain thinking, integrates hands-on learning experiences, and exposes students to the technologies that will give them an edge in specific industries.

This combination of left-brain and right-brain thinking is happening all over the innovation economy in companies large and small, and it’s far past time higher education gets on board. At Bentley that translates into a mix of business with arts and sciences. One example is Bentley’s liberal studies major, in which business majors add a second, liberal arts major. Students might combine a major in economics and finance with a liberal studies major in earth environment and global sustainability, leaving them well suited to develop a business plan for a growing solar power company. Or someone might put together a left-brain interest in accounting and a right-brain interest in ethics and corporate responsibility; there is no doubt Wall Street is in need of investors and business leaders like that. These are real examples I’ve seen among recent Bentley graduates.

Beyond these choices of major or field of study, hands-on experiences are crucial to better prepare students, whether via external internships, corporate immersion classes on campus with real companies, study abroad or community-based service-­learning opportunities. A combination of several of these experiences is ideal. These real-world experiences allow students to see how their studies, skills and interests play out in the realities of work and life. In fact, I think internships and service learning should be mandatory for all students, regardless of major.

Q: Bentley has a focus on business. How do your ideas play out at a liberal arts college?

A: In the book, I quote Clark University’s president, David Angel, as saying, “Liberal arts education can’t stand still.” The truth is, no one in higher ed can stand still. Higher education’s traditional separation of left-brain and right-brain domains needs to disappear. Fortunately, that change is beginning to take hold. The hybrid model that dissolves the traditional barrier between business and liberal arts education is being done successfully at a number of different institutions, from Ivy League schools to community colleges. It can absolutely be applied at liberal arts schools.

Clark University is a great example. Clark has made good on its vow to not stand still by overhauling its curriculum and introducing a new model of liberal arts education that it calls Liberal Education and Effective Practice. This approach integrates world, workplace and personal experiences with a liberal arts curriculum. By integrating projects and internships, alumni mentoring, research, community engagement and cross-cultural exchanges with classroom experiences, the program fosters critical thinking, effective communication, creativity, teamwork, a strong ethical framework and the resilience and persistence to get things done. This what students need to thrive in today’s complex, ever-changing world.

Another example: at Davidson College, a liberal arts school, they believe career services should be a core part of the student experience. It starts the first week of first year, when students do a Myers-Briggs assessment to figure out who they are, what drives them and where they want to go. There it is again, the dissolution of that traditional line between careers and liberal arts. I think that’s the right approach.

A report released in 2011 called “Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession,” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, examined 10 schools, including Bentley. Called the BELL project (Business, Entrepreneurship and Liberal Learning), the report concluded that “each of these domains [liberal arts and business or practical learning] must serve as both crucible and catalyst to animate the educational potential of the other.” Bentley had at that time incorporated our “fusion” education model, linking business and the liberal arts, as well as our liberal studies majors. This learning model highlighted by BELL has become an important differentiator at many leading colleges and universities in order to properly prepare their students.

Q: Many these days argue for online education as an alternative to traditional higher education. You have an entire chapter on the value of place-based education. Why is physical presence so important?

A: I am very passionate about this -- which is why I devoted all of chapter 5 to it. If a student can attend college on a campus, the totality of their personal experience is much richer. Place-based education -- the campus -- is where students, professors, mentors, peers and activities come together for a holistic experience, greater than the sum of its parts and suited to that time in life when young people are largely becoming who they will be for decades to come.

The internet and online courses provide a superabundance of information, but wisdom and intellectual growth still depend on the relationships of teachers and students. When living on campus, students have the opportunity for advanced learning including time management, learning limitations, gaining new perspectives and getting outside your comfort zone. Graduates need to possess the courage to take risks, the creativity to innovate, a strong moral compass -- all things you get by living independently on a campus with new people and new experiences.

I realize that place-based education is a privilege. Not everybody can live on a campus for four years, whether because of financial circumstances or commitments to work or family. That’s why it’s so important that the higher education system offers off-campus students a range of options, including part-time study and financial aid, as well as online learning.

Q: Some faculty members fear that efforts to make students better prepared for jobs will undercut general education. How would you reassure them?

A: I would say to them that this is not an either/or situation. It’s possible to prepare students to engage in successful careers after graduation while also giving them a great general education. It’s not vocational or narrow to say the real world -- and preparing students for it -- matters.

Our faculty at Bentley don’t see this as pitting general education versus preparing students for careers. They are the ones who most “own” our model of integrating business with the liberal arts and its resulting success -- for the past eight consecutive years, over 98 percent of our graduates have a job or attend graduate school within six months of graduation. The reality is that this is what students and families are concerned about. Research from the University of California, Los Angeles’s Higher Education Institute tells us that 85 percent of first-year college students say getting a better job was a major reason for attending college. These are numbers we cannot ignore.


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