A Proposal for Change in Our Current Model for Higher Ed

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Associate Editor
Editor, Teacher Education

A couple days ago, I heard a report on BBC News at WUNC about the connection between higher education and the job market in the UK. A recent report showed that almost 60% of college graduates were not able to find jobs in their field or even at their level of education. Some analysts are saying a university education is worthless and a waste of money, so they are advocating a return to apprenticeships.

However, the speaker said that he thinks that university education needs to be better aligned with what’s going on in the workforce. He also asserted that the workforce needs to be more open-minded about the skills they are looking for. He used the example that if you are going to be a biochemist, you need to learn certain knowledge and skills. However, for other bio-tech jobs, many of the skills one learns in any STEM program can give the employee the necessary basic skill set, which they can then refine on the job.

When I worked at a high school here in the US, I was part of a workforce readiness initiative for high school students. A representative from the local phone company told us to send them applicants who can read and write and be on time and they can do the rest with their in-house training. At the time, I thought that was a little simplistic, and I still do, but there is some truth in what he says.

This story also made me think about technology and education as well as MOOCs, other educational delivery systems, and the cost of education. First, I want to make it clear that I think there is more to university education than “skills training.” I think the university is a place to expand our awareness, have the opportunity to explore issues, and learn to think, really think. However, I also believe that higher education needs to take a step back and re-think how it is educating.

One area that should be addressed is the current model of students taking two years of basic courses, English, math, science, etc., before they can start their major courses. If high schools are doing their job, students should have this basic knowledge before entering the university. If they don’t then, perhaps, these deficits can be addressed with online competency-based courses that students take along with their major courses.

There are several advantages to this idea. First, students learn the skills they need, but save time and money. Second, these courses can help teach mastery skills as they are developing or refining competencies, such as writing skills and critical thinking. Then in major courses, students can integrate these skills into their acquisition of abstract theory and concrete knowledge needed to develop what they need to find jobs and be successful in their chosen careers.

What are your thoughts about this issue? Have you experienced this type of model (blend of online competency-based basic courses and major courses) or another model that helps better prepare students for the 21st century workforce while assuring them a quality education?

3 Responses

  1. From my viewpoint, the purpose of post-secondary education is to learn the best thinking tools and to spend time applying them to so-called majors. Part of that education is exposure to a variety of ideas, what Lynn calls expanding our awareness. After all, one way to develop thinking skills is to see how a variety of people have thought over hte centuries.

    Another skill often missing upon high school graduation is communication. This skill means much more than it did just a few decades ago. Our post-secondary institutions must follow up with excellent courses to develop this skill.

    I am not opposed to apprenticeships, but I am opposed to using them as an excuse not to be educated past high school, which education is usually rather limited. I like what some community colleges are doing here by providing the important learning along with the equivalent of apprenticing. Who says you cannot take English literature and auto repair at the same time? Two years of a decent college education will take a great many of our citizens to retirement in good stead. No college education will leave nearly all without the means to achieve the lives that they’d like to leave, even if their goals are rather modest.

    Lynn says, “If high schools are doing their job, …” Too often, they are not. Even colleges may not. Years ago, when I was a university professor, I was grading a cumulative exam by a graduate student. The paragraphs were in no rational order, and they were disorganized cobbles of miscellaneous words. Many sentences were not. Needless to say, I failed that miserable effort that was the outcome of our secondary AND post-secondary educational institutions.

    Her thoughts for solution (having online remedial courses) sounds great. I have to wonder how well it will work in practice. First-year college students suffer from culture shock and often barely are able to keep up. Can we add more course load to them? Moreover, many are not able to function independently and have not yet developed good study habits. Will they succeed in an online course, especially one that will seem rather dull?

    I am guessing that the students with the greatest deficiencies are the ones who must have the most personal help, but I am only guessing here.

    I too would like to see people write of experiences in this area. There has to be a way to accommodate the variety of backgrounds and goals for all post-secondary students by reasonable and rational adjustment of what it means to be in a college.

  2. Harry – Thanks for your comments. I think it is key, as you pointed out, that education evolve so that when students graduate from high school – whether they intend to be plumbers or doctors – they have more than basic reading, writing, and numeracy skills.

    I also wanted to clarify about the online courses I am recommending. These would not just be remedial courses that are added to the students’ course load. They would take the place of English 101, Math, Science, 101, etc. and be interdisciplinary courses that integrate knowledge and skills. Some colleges are implementing this with varying degrees of success.

  3. Actually developing a proposal that will be effective follows a logical process. Assemble your planning team, using participatory principles where possible; do your research; analyze the issue; design your actual proposal; create a plan for maintaining change once it’s achieved; present and advocate for your proposal early and often; and expect to have to continue working to get it accepted over the long term, and to maintain it after that.

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