Monday, August 12, 2013

The purpose of college
When I initiated this study one of the issues I hadn't anticipated coming up was the big and persistent question of the purpose of college.  No less than 4 books on the topic have recently been published (WaPost review of 4 books on the purpose of college - behind paywall) on the topic, which has become the topic of innumerable news articles, academic studies, and blog posts, largely due to the increasing costs of attending a 4-year college or university and the poor jobs outlook for graduates.   Re-thinking the once unassailable notion of the value of getting a 4-year degree raises the related question of which field to major in?

For better or for worse, the answer is often a STEM major if in a 4-year institution, and one that has a direct link to the marketplace - think electrical engineering rather than theoretical mathematics.  Further, some are wondering whether or not students would be better served by just attending a 2-year institution and obtaining an associate's degree or professional certificate in a high-demand field such as nursing or software programming.   ( For more on this complex topic see "Hard Times" by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which is an excellent resource in general and a treasure trove of information and solid analysis (Hard Times report).

As I write up the policy brief that summarizes the first wave of this study on the skills gap, this question of the purpose of college simply has to be acknowledged.  No real answers are provided, as that is beyond my pay grade and honestly, my answer would be a very unsatisfying "it depends" or "yes, but...."  But the territory that I do stake out is a critique of blanket statements about the uselessness of college, the absolute necessity of college, and so on.  Also, the overall debate about the "skills gap," as long as educational policy is implicated in the matter (which it seems to always be, especially in Wisconsin), needs to be situated within this broader context about the purposes of college. 

As my thinking evolves on the matter, it seems that college graduates would be best served if they graduated (from both 4-year and 2-year institutions) with a combination of "hard" or technical skills that would directly serve them in the marketplace upon graduation (e.g., accounting, programming, writing) and "soft" skills that would serve them immediately as well as throughout their lifetime (e.g., the ability to work in groups).  This issue of skills sets to secure that first job vs. skill sets to continually learn, evolve, and stay employed is rarely discussed, and it seems to me that if students aren't given both a set of marketable skills in ALL fields (not just STEM) as well as the ability to become lifelong and adaptable learners, then we do them a disservice.

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