Ten years ago, Texas A&M cut its journalism program. The job market imploded in the meantime, but the university hopes its interdisciplinary, liberal arts education approach will make reviving the degree a smart move.
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.
More than 45 years ago, Benjamin Braddock left an indelible mark on the American public in "The Graduate." Politely yet palpably rejecting advice to choose “plastics” as a career, Benjamin submerges into the darkness of a swimming pool in an attempt to escape the looming decision: what’s next?
The lack of clarity that plagued Benjamin’s generation has only been heightened for today’s graduates who receive equally cryptic messages to pursue jobs in technology, business, or fields for which they have little interest or knowledge. But they also find themselves competing with record numbers of college graduates, often for low-paying or part-time jobs while shouldering college loans.
For most, the college experience was itself stuttered and uncertain. Only slightly more than a third now obtain a bachelor’s degree within the traditional four-year window. Eight years in, only 60 percent graduate. More than a third churn through at least two institutions, and most change their majors along the way. Coming out, debt loads and default rates are at record highs.
Despite these problems, the United States continues to have the highest number of college graduates in the world and ranks fourth internationally in the proportion of college graduates among 25-to-64 year-olds, at 42 percent. For those with degrees, unemployment rates are lower and lifetime earnings are higher. The basic contour of the college storyline persists, even in the face of the Great Recession: College brings rewards to those who finish. It not only makes a difference in employment and wages, especially over one's lifetime, but also in many aspects of health and well-being. The exclusive focus on jobs and wages is shortsighted. These non-economic rewards need to enter public discussion of the value of higher education.
The short-term problem, and a serious one for many young Americans, is getting started after college. One major challenge is unrealistic expectations. That college degree isn’t a fast-pass ticket to a high-status high-wage job. Most young graduates will have difficulty finding full-time work, and there are few options for stable jobs with real opportunities for advancement. Graduates and parents see the popular unpaid internship as a portfolio-builder for “real” work later on. Be forewarned: These internships are not likely to lead to employment and meaningful skills. At some point, graduates need to get started in a job rather than wait too long for the right job. Just how long one should wait is a tough call. But there will inevitably be some waiting up front. Graduates and parents need to be prepared for it.
A bigger problem is that graduates do not know what they want to do or, if they do, what options exist for getting there. Their career aspirations are often too high for their abilities and backgrounds — but no one has told them otherwise. For many there are feelings of regret: “I shouldn’t have screwed around when I had the chance to buckle down.” “What was I thinking when I decided to major in art?” Many mistakenly assume that enrolling in graduate school to earn yet another degree or two will automatically make them more marketable or be profitable as they pile on new debt. Graduate school is an expensive place to find oneself and an ineffective place to warehouse young people.
What should we do? Young people need to align their aspirations with their skills and abilities and know the odds of their ambitions, and parents must aid them in helpful and honest ways. Not everyone is going to be a screenwriter or real estate mogul -- and a few years as a barista are unlikely to be well-spent if one’s career ambitions are not in coffee service.
Young people need a better understanding of the labor market and a strategic plan that focuses on who they are, not just on what they want to be. They also need to know the truth about adulthood: that we seldom land where we expect. Successful pathways into adulthood are fueled by flexibility, resilience, and adaptation -- not exactly the stuff of college textbooks and learning outcomes.
Institutions of higher education have a moral obligation to open these difficult conversations with students early on -- but in a competitive marketplace, under-resourced institutions are often unwilling or unable to be honest about the chances of their graduates. Institutions expend virtually all of their energy getting students in the door and then keeping them in -- that’s where the financial incentives are -- than they do to see their students out. Graduation largely marks the end of the university’s commitment to the student. Apart from career fairs and basic advice on resumes, cover letters, and interviewing, it’s goodbye and good luck. To leave school is to become adult: You’re on your own. The day after graduation, institutions turn their attention to the incoming class.
The bottom line is that if young people are graduating from college but not getting jobs that are even marginally aligned with their career hopes, or that pay enough to get them on a path toward economic independence, we have reason to be concerned. We also acknowledge that institutions of higher education have a responsibility to foster student understanding and appreciation of arts, humanities, and social sciences, which are at the foundation of our global society. These problems signal a dire need to stimulate public debate about the purpose and effectiveness of higher education in the United States.
Amid the refrain that “college is for everyone,” parents and educators are so focused on getting students to the finish line that graduates are left with little guidance or support in how to cross the line from the confines of college into the messiness of adult life.
Barbara Schneider is the president of the American Educational Research Association, professor of education and sociology at Michigan State, and author of The Ambitious Generation (Yale). Richard Settersten is a member of the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood and Public Policy, professor of social and behavioral health sciences at Oregon State, and author of Not Quite Adults (Bantam/Random House).
Pitt promises every student who wants an internship will get one, but experts say it's going to be a challenge. Johnson & Wales University's stipend program for anyone who wants unpaid position enters second year.
Summer business programs for liberal arts students might not be designed exclusively for job placement, but their popularity and expansion -- at least in recent years -- suggests they're helping with it.