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On the surface, the White House’s recent executive order to prioritize skills over degrees in federal hiring would seem a victory to anyone worried about educational equity. A college degree often feels out of reach to students from poorer families and underrepresented minority populations. Systemic barriers to success mean students of color who do enroll in college are much less likely to graduate than nonminority students. Recent Black college graduates also suffer much higher unemployment and underemployment rates than their white colleagues. Let’s start by acknowledging that the traditional higher education system is failing our most vulnerable populations.

Enter technical skills. Community colleges, university continuing education units, coding boot camps and other alternative providers have long offered “just enough” and “just in time” programs to meet workforce shortages and expand educational access in their regions. These programs play a vital role, especially in a recession. We must take care, however, to understand where technical skills are and aren’t the solution. An overfocus on skills may solve short-term problems but widen longer-term equity gaps.

The goal of college has long been to prepare students for a lifelong career -- or more likely, multiple careers -- rather than one single job. College students gain the “learning to learn” disciplines and the networks needed not only for their first job but also their fifth one. Creative problem solving, leadership of self and others, teamwork, verbal communication, and adaptability are all critical skills they will need to be professionally successful. Surveys of CEOs frequently note that those and other so-called soft skills or essential skills are what determine whether someone advances up the corporate or organizational ladder.

Many of our nation’s higher education institutions face increasing pressure to expand technical and specialized programs. Finances may dictate this shift, as will pressure from government leaders on both sides of the aisle, a growing need for private sector funding and an education consumer increasingly concerned with immediate return on investment.

Yet the fear among college and university leaders is that if education skews more toward the technical rather than essential skills, we risk building an increasingly bifurcated society with a much thinner slice of the population properly equipped to drive the bigger changes our society needs.

Imagine a not-too-distant future where only a small number of elite higher education institutions -- say, the top 100 -- are able to focus on the liberal arts and sciences. Students at such institutions learn to learn and gain the essential skills needed to advance across their careers. They are almost certain to come from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, and a disproportionate number will be white.

Meanwhile, the rest of our nation’s thousands of colleges and universities end up focusing almost exclusively on job training. They meet immediate needs, but their graduates continually risk displacement as labor markets change. These students -- disproportionately low-income and from historically underrepresented populations -- need frequent retooling and ultimately hit career ceilings compared to their counterparts from elite institutions.

In this dystopia, the focus on skills expands access and opportunity in the short term while creating a two-tiered society that reinforces equity gaps with a vengeance. And, in fact, we already appear to be headed in that direction.

When thinking about how to fund and partner with higher education, employers and governments need to realize it doesn’t have to be an either-or, technical versus liberal arts, proposition. Both are especially relevant in a time of dramatic change. Technical, specialized skills can help a restaurant figure out how to offer contact tracing and implement different point-of-sale mechanisms. Essential skills are needed to reimagine wholly new business models the restaurant industry might need to adopt over the long term.

To be sure, much of the blame lies with colleges and universities. Higher education needs to do more to ensure that the liberal arts provide meaningful career opportunities for all students, not just those from elite institutions or who have powerful connections. The study of Shakespeare or Toni Morrison can help a literature student learn to analyze and synthesize trends, develop creative arguments backed by solid evidence, and navigate ambiguity. Interdisciplinary, team-based learning can teach students to solve problems in groups and think in systems.

But all too often it isn’t clear to students or employers how a liberal arts education translates into these crucial competencies for advancing through any profession. And too many professors still prioritize “sage on the stage” teaching models to the exclusion of “guide on the side” approaches that often do more to help students build practical skills.

Higher education in the United States has long been an envy of the world for its ability to drive innovation, creative thinking and leadership. We have aspired to create an educational ecosystem that also acts as a societal leveler -- evident in our many strong public university systems. We are now at a crossroads moment, however, where these ambitions are under threat. We need to keep the liberal arts front and center, work harder to provide equal access to all students who want to pursue that path, and make the changes necessary to strengthen the value and relevance of that education.

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