caché. Having an undergraduate degree meant that an individual invested considerable time and energy in working towards the attainment of a degree, and that attainment meant the individual had proven herself or himself worthy.
College and university classrooms were places of higher
learning. Expectations were higher, thinking was higher, effort was
higher. The end result was a well-educated individual who could hold his
or her own among the ranks. Students who did exceptionally well and
graduated at or near the top of their class were expected to have more
ability, more perseverance, more capability, and more intellectual
capacity. They were not expected to have expectations that jobs,
promotions, and benefits would simply come their way.
Students who did not fare as well but still graduated
demonstrated they had grit; they had perseverance and some levels of
ability and capability, but they had to work harder and longer to try to
be competitive. These were the students to watch because they knew
nothing came easy, yet they were willing to work.
Students who barely graduated from college gave the
world a clear indication of the likelihood of their success in the world
of work. These are the students who likely went to college for a range
of reasons, none of them intellectual--mostly because it was expected of
them but college and a degree were not of interest to them.
In some ways, the democratization of higher education
is to blame, but it's far from the only reason. College has become much
more than a place of higher learning, and quite possibly to its
When the US decided that vocational education was no
longer sufficient--and I'm not quite sure how that happened--innumerable
students who would have preferred to get a perfectly acceptable
professional certification found themselves attending college. Someone
went into debt while those kids struggled and grew more frustrated.
Career and technical education (CTE) has rebounded, and that's a very
Now what if we were
to take a giant step back and think about what might be the real
purpose of a college education. The liberal arts educators believe they
have the answers, and I submit they are generally right: to learn to be
critical thinkers, to learn to think and communicate effectively, to
learn how to present one's self professionally, to learn how to behave
in professional situations, and to establish a foundation for the person
students will become. To accomplish this, students take a range of
courses that offer them a means to establish an academic foundation for the work they may endeavor to do.
has become a transactional means to an end. Students approach college
with the intent of completing a certain amount of required course work
and taking on some appropriate extracurricular activities, perhaps
excelling in a sport to try to the professional athlete route to
success. College has become an exercise in building one's resume.
Students and colleges are not solely to blame. The work
place has some skin in that particular game because they make it clear
that only "the best and brightest" have a shot at success. Balderdash.
And how often has a company hired that bright light only to discover it
has little fuse and no substance?
There is already a Symposium for the Future of Work and
Learning, which is a step in the right direction. But it's a formal
event and organization with a program and speakers. . .blah blah blah.
Basically it's a business school.
What if. . . a team of individuals made up of business
leaders and educators were talk formally and informally with managers
(not executives, mind you) in all kinds of businesses? Everyone would
ask and be asked the same questions. This should not be a complex
survey. Perhaps some of the team could collect job descriptions and code
those to get an idea of what companies think they want in their
employees. But there should also be interviews about the most valuable
employees and why they are so valued.
My theory is that the most valued employees are those
who work hard; who take initiative; who are willing to learn, unlearn,
and relearn; who step in to coach or mentor when needed; who don't think
they are bigger or more important than their job titles and yet don't
let anyone take advantage of them. They are the employees who are
confident in their abilities and capabilities, but unrealistic; they are
the employees that some think are suckers because they commend and
recommend the work of others--they are true team players. They are the
employees who will stay as long as needed to make sure the work is done
right. They are the employees who own up to mistakes and who do not
I would also
suggest that the team interview graduates who have been out of college
less than five years and find out just how much they learned in college
has been useful to them and in what ways. They may need to be prompted
because it's likely they learned some things without realizing it, but
it's also quite likely that much of what they've needed to know and
learn about their work wasn't the remotest part of the curriculum.
I don't think a college education should be tailored to
the work place, but I do think that higher education and the work
place--and that's all levels of the work place--need to be in better
communication and partnership to make sure the next generation of higher
education is about the kind of higher learning that students and
employers can value.