In an Evolving Career Landscape, How Should Colleges Prepare Students?

January 22, 2015

By all accounts, the career paths of today’s students will hardly resemble those of their parents. So what are colleges doing to help them prepare?

On Wednesday the Kettering Foundation, the National Issues Forums Institute, and Augsburg College gathered a group of leaders from higher education, business, government, and other fields here to begin what the organizations hope will be a national conversation on the question of how colleges should adapt to a working world changed by technology, globalization, and the aftermath of the recession.

One answer came almost immediately, in opening remarks by Jamienne S. Studley, deputy under secretary of education. "To me, the answer to the question you pose is pretty simple," she said. "What should we ask of higher education? The answer: a great deal."

Other perspectives are likely to be added soon, as the groups plan to follow up with forums around the country. The conversations grew from a set of forums the foundation and the institute organized a couple of years ago. Those discussions resulted in a report illustrating that the public wants colleges to expose students to new things and to encourage skills like critical thinking, not just train them for jobs.

Panelists touched on an array of topics at Wednesday’s event, including a concern that students graduate without some of the broad skills—like problem solving, critical thinking, and applying knowledge to the real world—that employers desire and that the liberal arts are meant to instill.

While some discussions pit the need to prepare students for specific jobs against the desire to educate them broadly, the panelists seemed to agree that colleges must do both. And they saw room for improvement across the board.

Many of the skills needed to become an engineer are the same ones you’d need to be a politician or a hedge-fund manager, said Richard Laine, director of education for the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices.

Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University, agreed. What students gain from a liberal-arts education, combined with experiential learning, is applicable no matter what career they tackle. "Every great STEM scientist I know, and I do a lot of work with the National Science Foundation, will tell you that it’s not learning the chart of elements that got them where they are," Ms. Cantor said. "It is learning to think, it’s learning to apply knowledge to very complex, messy issues like climate change."

The public is often skeptical of the claim that higher education prepares students for lifelong success. That means colleges face a relatively new challenge: proving that they do, said Byron P. White, vice president for university engagement and chief diversity officer at Cleveland State University.

Though Mr. White is concerned that college graduates lack needed skills, he said he was more worried about the "exploration gap." It’s not that students aren’t being taught what they need to know, he said. It’s that the learning isn’t organized in a useful way. Students need help tying together what they are learning inside the classroom and out of it. "We know what’s needed: We need skills-oriented learning, infused with the liberal arts, with a heavy dose of real-world experience," Mr. White said.

Pinpointing what graduates need is one thing. Making sure colleges deliver it is the next challenge.