Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Reforming Higher Ed

For some time now, I've been entertaining the idea that our current approach to higher education is, well, an outdated luxury.

Currently, one working hypothesis for helping to fix the American economy is to devote more resources to helping kids go to and graduate from college. The simple premise is that, all other things being equal. going to college helps you get ahead. The next generation of American workers needs to be even better educated. We need smart folks for 21st century jobs, in other words.

Fine, but I find myself questioning the wisdom of throwing more resources at supporting college education, for a host of reasons. One, increasing subsidies will probably increase costs. Two, a large part of getting ahead via a degree relates to credentialism and gate-keeping, not skill. Three, I question how well the set "skills acquired in college" matches the set "useful 21st century skills.

I could go on, but George Leef seems to be asking some good questions in his 2-part series questioning a recently released paper called Help Wanted, which supports more Higher Ed.

Here's a taste from part 2:

Imagine a student who recently graduated from high school with a good GPA, successfully completed a number of AP courses, and has SAT or ACT scores above the 75th percentile—a bright young person. Are there entry-level jobs he or she simply cannot dowithout first taking a lot of college courses?
Yes, a few. Here, for example, is a job posting where the college degree requirement pertains to essential knowledge. I suppose there might be a tiny number of high school grads who could capably do biomedical engineering research, but it makes sense for the employer to confine the search to college graduates with the proper coursework. Let’s agree that this job really requires advanced study.
But how many jobs demand such academic preparation that our bright high school graduate would flounder helplessly if given the work? Not many.  Far more often, the college “requirement” has nothing to do with knowledge you can only get through college study.

Here's the thing, for me. I think we're heading into a future where we are forced to face the bounds on our resources. And as we seek to produce more and consume less, we'll be well served by devoting our precious resources carefully, with forethought. Before we devote more resources towards the simple and broad goal of "getting more kids through college so that they can succeed," let's think on it a bit.

Why not identify and then target the particular skills we expect to be in demand? Instead of leaving untouched and unquestioned the traditional liberal arts education, why not investigate training in things like office productivity. If an employer has a choice between someone with well-rounded liberal arts skills and someone who can kick ass with databases, spreadsheets, word processing, networking, and so on, which will they choose?

If we devote more resources to higher ed, I want the result to be a larger source of workers will skills that are in demand and useful across a range of 21st century work situations. Why not target that, instead of just increasing college loan subsidies or whatever?

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