The back-to-school season is easy to recognize. Temperatures get a bit cooler. Walgreens and CVS start doing a brisk business in pencil and notebook sales. And in college towns like Boston, as I can personally attest, commute times suddenly double.
Another familiar feature of the season, of course, is news columns on education trends -- those lists of the 10 or 12 or 15 things to watch, whether they be emerging technologies, or new regulations, or looming anxieties about increased competition, financial challenges, the future of tenure, and so on.
What’s striking about so many of the observable trends in higher education today is the way in which they seem to be fueled by the same motivating force: the desire for jobs. The pursuit of jobs or job readiness or real-world work experience seems to be the trend of trends.
For some within the higher education community, this focus on jobs will undoubtedly be viewed as reductivist, relegating higher education institutions to the same status as factories churning out “product” – skilled labor, in this case.
“Just wait,” this constituency may well caution, “this vocational turn will be accompanied by a hail of unintended consequences: a weakened citizenry, the abandonment of the arts, and the valorization of rote learning in place of critical thinking.”
For others, the increased attention to graduate employability and work readiness will signal what they might regard as a long-overdue pivot to a more realistic perspective on the function of higher education within a knowledge economy.
“Look,” this group of stakeholders might well argue, “preparing future professionals to communicate effectively, arrive at work on time, take problems to managers only when warranted, and possess some familiarity with the tools of the contemporary work place – whether spreadsheets, algorithms, databases, or other – just makes good, practical sense.”
For the moment, the latter voices appear to be in the ascendency -- spurred on by an extended economic crisis, unparalleled in our lifetimes, where as many as 4 in 10 recent graduates are unemployed or underemployed. Indeed, we can see evidence of this perspective taking hold in decisions related to everything from campus operations to curriculum design to assessment to the development of new education-related consumer services.
Look at big data. Business analytics have an important role to play in demonstrating institutional effectiveness. Increasingly, that effectiveness is measured by student success – not just in the classroom or on the exit exam, but in the workforce. Mid-career salaries represent the kind of long-term outcomes growing numbers of institutions are orienting themselves around, and colleges are adapting their systems to gather this kind of information.
Furthermore, few schools today would willingly position themselves as being at a remove from the wider world of economics, industry and work. To the contrary, in one way or another, colleges are going to where the jobs are – whether through the delivery of online learning and short-residency executive education programs, or through the development of satellite campuses, both domestically and internationally, in key economic hubs.
This represents an important kind of bridge-building between the world of academic study and the world of work, and it can be seen in the way colleges and universities are approaching curriculum design.
Look at big data – again. This past summer, IBM announced deals with five U.S. universities – including Georgetown University, George Washington University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Northwestern University, and the University of Missouri, as well as several foreign institutions – to collaborate in the development of new curriculums around data science.
Last spring, the Georgia Institute of Technology announced a deal with Udacity to deliver a master’s degree in computer science online for less than $7,000 in tuition, supported by a $2 million grant from AT&T. Naturally enough, the telecom firm hopes to hire some of the program’s graduates. Deals like these underscore the extent to which universities represent critical talent pipelines, and undoubtedly many students will benefit from the closer collaboration between these institutions and employers.
Even the debate about the value of the liberal arts is concerned with the relevance of the curriculum to the work place – and this is by no means a bad thing, at least if you are among those who believe that the liberal arts curriculum, and the skills and capacities it develops, does have relevance to the needs of the work place.
But the debate is useful also to the extent that it highlights the limitations of the liberal arts in promoting work readiness – because there are a number of ways in which such a curriculum might be augmented to achieve that end.
This can be seen in the growing focus on experiential learning opportunities – whether it takes the form of internships and co-ops, or field research experiences, or participation in business incubators, or any number of other kinds of outside-the-classroom learning experiences.
Of course, experiential learning programs take time for institutions to develop – especially those that intend to provide students with the opportunity to benefit from paid, professional experience earned in the course of their degree programs – and not every institution has the capacity to quickly develop the relationships with employers necessary to sustain these efforts.
For that reason, a number of commercial enterprises are stepping in to help current students and recent graduates, as well as colleges and universities, by providing these sorts of experiences. Witness coaching organizations like the Fullbridge Program, which delivers an intensive preparatory curriculum to help students increase their work readiness, and online providers like Coursolve, which matches courses with organizations’ current business needs so that students can engage in practical problem solving and produce a real-world work product.
Inasmuch as educators are now placing greater emphasis on the application of curriculum to the work place, it isn’t a surprise to see assessment moving in the same direction. This summer the Council for Aid to Education announced that its Collegiate Learning Assessment exam – a tool for measuring, at the institutional level, the value-add that colleges are able to deliver over the course of an undergraduate degree – would now be augmented by something called the CLA+, a new kind of exit exam that attempts to measure the employability of the individual graduate.
Concurrent with the emergence of this new kind of outcomes assessment is a growing recognition that employability should not just be the concern of recent graduates or incoming seniors.
Indeed, a few weeks back, LinkedIn announced that it would begin allowing individuals as young as 14 to create profiles on its site while also permitting them to draw upon the firm’s new University Pages to aid these future professionals in their college search efforts. The intention, it seems, is not only to help prospective college students compare and contrast institutional profiles, but to empower them to connect with current students, as well as alums – folks who are already on campus or already in the workforce, and who can share their views on the extent to which their alma mater was able to effectively prepare them for the careers they ultimately hope to pursue or are already pursuing.
It will take time to see which of these forms of work force preparation prove effective and which do not – both academically and professionally. Those institutions that are most successful in testing these more professionally focused strategies and tactics are likely to be those that view the journey from college to work as a continuum where they have an important role to play, rather than those who view the encroachment of pre-professional preparation on academic disciplines as an anathema.
Whatever one’s philosophical disposition, the desire to link the worlds of academic study and work more closely together is clearly driving diverse forms of innovation, and those innovations certainly represent interesting trends in and of themselves. But the real trend, ultimately, is the pursuit of jobs itself.
As a consequence, for a growing number of colleges and universities, the emphasis this back-to-school season will have to be on getting their students ready for work, and getting ready to make that work for themselves, as well.
Peter Stokes is vice president of global strategy and business development at Northeastern University, and author of the Peripheral Vision column.
Residential halls may be the greatest experiment in American democracy. In the same way that many people argue the military draft once performed a unique function in mixing people together, residential halls may be one of the few places that truly do this in American society. At the very least, they are certainly one of our under-leveraged assets for civic learning.
Each year, students arrive on our campuses and move into residential halls. Typically, we pack lots of students into small spaces. For our first-year students, it will be the first time that many of them have shared a room with another person. It's also the first time that many of our students have bumped up against so much diversity. Over the last 30 years our residential halls have become increasingly diverse, mixing students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, mental and physical challenges, alcohol or drug issues, and a range of other characteristics or issues.
For the most part, too many of us treat residential halls as a functional place for housing students.
This is a lost opportunity. The next generation is going to inherit a world filled with civic challenges. In addition to the usual challenges of community building, they will inherit communities struggling under the weight of large social and political institutions that are not up to the task of the modern era. They also will inherit communities grappling with complex global issues manifesting themselves as local problems, including a lack of jobs, water shortages, and racial/ethnic/religious divisions.
To meet their civic responsibilities, our students will need the capacity to thrive in diverse environments, embrace change as a daily reality, think outside boxes and across categories, and possess a mix of personal attributes, including humility, confidence, persistence, empathy, and communication and conflict negotiation skills. Residential halls are great places for some of this learning to occur.
Take two examples:
A typical roommate conflict takes the following form. Students get annoyed. Rather than tell their roommates, they often text their friends and/or use cell phones to call their parents. Eventually they talk to a resident adviser (RA) or a member of our staff. By the time they confront their roommate, they are angry and often voice the annoyance in a way that few people could hear. Everyone gets angry. Friends take sides, and the hall becomes divided. Paid professionals then step in to solve the problem. Sometimes we move one of the students. Other times we create rules that allow for people to share space by minimizing social interaction. Rather than viewing roommate conflicts as problems to be solved, we should see them as moments to teach students the habits and skills of civil discourse. Roommate conflicts are opportunities for students to learn to voice problems, to hear different views, and to reconcile competing views into an action or policy. Part of living in a free society is learning to live and work with people you may not like. The roommate who is "driving us crazy" will someday be our neighbor, family member, coworker, or ally in a local issue.
A second example is the typical problem of late-night noise on a residence hall floor. Under the current model, students learn poor civic responses that mirror large society. First, the individual approaches the group that is making a lot of noise. When that does not work, students call the local authorities, often campus security or RAs. If this does not work, they lump it by either finding another place to study or learning to live with it.
Another approach would be for our students to be coached to organize their neighbors to solve the problem. Most often, late-night noise results from a few students going too far on a regular basis. Everybody on the hall knows the source of the problem. The majority of students don't want the constant nighttime ruckus and its associated problems. We should help students learn to mobilize their peers to develop and carry out creative solutions. In the process, students will learn to work in groups, develop the arts of creative problem solving and project implementation, and acquire the skills of persistence, communication and conflict negotiation. They also will learn to hold their peers accountable when they are acting against the interest of the community, a skill that is sorely lacking in American society.
Disruption within residential halls is important. Often those making the noise operate from a place of privilege that is associated with class, constructions of gender and its expression, and truisms about college life. As they get louder, the rest get smaller, quieter, and more isolated. By training and encouraging civic action, we help a generation learn to become stronger and louder, not quieter, in the face of clashing culture norms. This is tough stuff, but it uniquely prepares students to be effective in democratic settings.
What do we need to do? We can start by trusting and investing in our residential staff. Much of what I wrote above is known to our students and staff working in residential halls. We have a fantastic generation of people choosing to work in our halls, both as students and professionals.They know a lot about campus culture. We need to recognize them and elevate the work they do in three ways.
First, we need to focus on a different kind of training. Most staff members have received training in student development, which they pass along to our student RAs. But very few have been trained as community organizers. This may seem like a small shift, but it requires training students and staff to use techniques and processes of community organizing. People trained this way know how to canvass a neighborhood and conduct one-on-one conversations with people who hold different views. And they are well equipped to facilitate contentious meetings, set agendas, and keep people organized and aligned over time. They understand the art of framing an issue and are adept at seeking allies in unexpected places.
Second, we should adopt and use the language of civic action. We often use the concept of community when talking about residential halls, but then we juxtapose the language of rules and processes. Effectively, our nomenclature in halls mixes frameworks of civic engagement with language of social control and bureaucratic management. There is a rich language used by people engaged in community work that is powerful, historic, and largely absent on our campuses. We might more forcefully use terms like community council, civic agency, and public work.
Language is connected to action. A community that is alive with civic action is a messy place that is filled with competing views, publicly contested issues, and engaged citizens. Civic action takes time. It also requires space to problem-solve. To transform our residence halls into sites for civic learning, we would need to de-layer our halls of rules and processes. We would move away from approaches where professionals act on people — and move toward civic approaches, where residential hall leaders understand the art of coaching students to engage in community building. We would take an experiential approach, giving students space and time to learn by doing. Sometimes our students would get it wrong. This would lead to some messiness and, often, to some conflict. We would see these as positive learning moments and not messy moments to be avoided.
All of this would require some give and take across the campus. In tight budget times, we would be asking a range of constituencies to support an intentional channeling of resources to residence halls as educational sites that complement and leverage learning elsewhere. We also would be asking our residential hall staff to embrace new ways of thinking, including giving up some of the rules and processes.
I spent the last eight years working for an organization on the front lines of global issues. We worked with young people from more than 140 countries who want to build healthy communities that can address the critical global issues that will shape the future. Our students were fighting for human rights in Yemen, working on public health issues across Africa, and addressing issues of poverty and race in the United States. As I watched them struggle, I was struck by how many of them had wonderful hearts but lacked the skills of civic action and community building. I also was struck by how many of them had spent time on our campuses.
I will admit that I am writing this a few days after my wife and I hosted a dinner for 70 students who serve as resident advisers and head residents, along with our amazing residential life staff. Talking to them, I was moved by their passions and talents. And I was intrigued by the thought of what they could do if trained and empowered as civic actors.
Adam Weinberg is the president of Denison University. Prior to this he was the president and CEO of World Learning. From 1995-2005, he was on the faculty at Colgate University, including serving as vice president and dean of the college.