The deluge of demands on higher education to prepare students for careers has left a wake of various responses -- primarily changes in curriculum and more emphasis on testing and assessment of outcomes -- to try to engineer skills that match current job requirements. But by focusing on content they're missing the most important key to career success -- confidence.
We all know that skills and facts become obsolete and that knowledge alone doesn't land the job. On the other hand, there's a great deal of research that shows that confidence may be the most important ingredient in getting a job and rising up the corporate ladder. Perhaps nowhere is this statement better proven than in the studies that demonstrate why women don't get as far as similarly educated and competent men. For example, a recent article entitled "The Confidence Gap" cites a number of studies that prove that confidence -- even over-confidence -- is what separates out highly successful leaders from their peers.
The sad part of this story is that higher education, for the most part, doesn't concentrate on teaching confidence. None of the assessment measures that are required by accrediting agencies look at this factor, either. In fact, a lot of education actually stifles confidence. John Taylor Gatto, the 1991 teacher of the year, argues in his essay, "The 7-lesson Schoolteacher," that school really teaches confusion, indifference, class position, intellectual and emotional dependency, provision self-esteem, and that one can't hide. While Gatto speaks of K-12 education, the same lessons are often the big take-aways in college classes. Too many professors are selected and promoted on the basis of their huge list of publications -- matched only by their huge egos. Some enjoy putting students in their place, and consciously or unconsciously make them unsure of performance standards. Their students are beholden to them for the grades that will impact whether they get that prized internship, qualify for a scholarship (or even to stay in school), or make it into graduate school. And too often, students have no other measure of how well they're actually doing other than their grades.
On the other hand, it is possible to engineer confidence. Opportunities to give students authority and responsibility early on in their academic careers pushes them into situations where they will inevitably test their own capabilities. This also lets them see that their faculty and administration trust them. For example, at the Roy H. Park School of Communications where I'm Dean, we check out about $25 million of portable production equipment to undergraduates each year -- and we entrust them to manage our cable TV channel and FCC licensed FM radio station. Our station managers wind up leading 300 other student volunteers to execute programming that is accessible to the world -- and accountable to the FCC.
Pushing students to interact with experts, even if they don't fully feel capable of engaging with them, allows them to learn how to network and use the language of their profession. I teach a freshman class where we Skype in leading industry professionals and students are required to live Tweet and to actually ask questions and share their opinions with our alums, including Bob Iger (Disney CEO) and David Muir (ABC news anchor). We tell the students they are not "kids" -- they are young professionals -- and they immediately begin acting that way.
Providing opportunities to become independent and live in unfamiliar situations while still having a familiar structure allows them (and their parents) to choose options that otherwise would be too risky. Our centers in Los Angeles and New York City allow our students to intern full-time while still checking in to take 2 classes and being mentored by their faculty and staff. Working side by side with professors and staff on real projects allows them to see themselves as agents of change and as capable -- while still being scaffolded by their mentors who are teaching important concepts while also doing a job. Many of our students serve as crew for faculty documentaries or for productions done by our professional production unit, and many classes at Ithaca College work for clients in the community writing grants, creating websites, or helping to teach kids in local elementary schools.
When choosing colleges, prospective students and their families should ask not just about job placement, what kinds of equipment or facilities are available, how famous the professors are, or even the college's ranking. What's most important is whether a student will feel more confident having experienced life in and out of the classroom. Being overwhelmed by the size or the culture of the institution will clearly be a step in the wrong direction. But so will being a truly huge fish in an overly small pond -- while a student may succeed, she will accurately perceive that success there is not indicative of success among a more representative group of peers in the profession of choice.
Students need opportunities to test their own mettle, to lead others, to accurately see how they stack up against talented and motivated peers, and to find the niche where they feel comfortable and confident. They need just the right amount of sheltering and hand-holding. And administrators and professors should focus as much on developing and measuring confidence as they do on measuring the acquisition of facts and skills.