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The Real Business of Higher Education

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There has been much talk lately about the value of a college education. Loud choruses of public officials, who control the ever-tightening purse strings of public education, are saying that parents and students should get a bang for the bucks they use to pay for a college education. Put another way, if you go to college you should leave campus with a tool kit of skills that will guarantee a good paying job -- a good return on your educational investment.

It's hard to argue with such an idea. Indeed, this narrative has become the mantra of university administrators who are increasingly pressured to attract more and more students to institutions of higher learning that have had to adjust to the politics of austerity. If you build luxury dormitories, establish gourmet food centers, and offer world-class fitness centers and combine those resources with a reputation for providing a skill-centered education that results in after-graduation employment, there will be no shortage of students willing to pay rising tuition fees.

My university is no exception to this trend. We have revamped our dorms and have built a new state of the art fitness center. Our administration recently announced a new on-line system that will improve contact between students and potential employers. In announcing this new system, the administration stated that the new network is,

...an online, one-stop career portal for... students and alumni. Hundreds of jobs and internships will be posted weekly just for the... community; job seekers will also be able
to access state-wide and national networks of other jobs, all in one convenient location!

-- Utilize a mobile app to access the system quickly and conveniently (job postings,
interview sign-ups, mock interviews, and more).
-- Track and manage their job search activities via an integrated calendar.
-- Gain access to more postings via partnerships with major professional employer networks.
-- See their university alumni working at the organization (via LinkedIn integration).
-- Utilize social media tools to learn about job opportunities and career events
(automated e-newsletters, Facebook, Twitter).
-- Receive enhanced communication via e-mail, text messaging, online calendar, and other
opt-in services.
-- Locate not just current jobs but information for employers who have hired in the past.
−− Better use of career services 24/7 and for quick questions.

This tool would be valuable to any job-seeking student. But are these resources sufficient? Can access to the latest digital technology and the acquisition of technical skills in increasingly crowded classrooms make for a satisfactory transition from college campus to corporate office?

The answer appears to be a resounding "no."

In the June 28th edition The New York Times, Alina Tugend wrote that ..

a special report by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media's Marketplace published in March found that about half of 704 employers who participated in the study said they had trouble finding recent college graduates qualified to fill positions at their company.

But, surprisingly, it wasn't necessarily specific technical skills that were lacking.

"When it comes to the skills most needed by employers, job candidates are lacking most in written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving," the report said.

Jaime S. Fall, a vice president at the HR Policy Association, an organization of chief human resources managers from large employers, said these findings backed up what his organization was hearing over and over from employers.

Young employees "are very good at finding information, but not as good at putting that information into context," Mr. Fall said. "They're really good at technology, but not at how to take those skills and resolve specific business problems."

Put another way, universities, it seems, need to encourage their students to think, to write, to work collaboratively, and to respond positively to constructive critique -- all techniques that social science and humanities scholars routinely use to make better sense of rapidly changing social and cultural life.

Although public officials decry the wasteful ivory tower luxury of humanities and social science scholarship and business magazines like Forbes and Kiplinger suggest that majors like anthropology, history, philosophy and art history cannot prepare you for a job, it appears that the "thinking" and "writing skills' that we teach in our "humanistic" classrooms, are just what our job-seeking students need.

In my upper-division anthropology classes, which are typical of humanities and social science courses, the students work collaboratively to produce research reports, all of which require that decisions be made, ambiguities be confronted and clarified and that data be put into proper historical and social and theoretical context. These are the nuts and bolts of analysis, the essential skill that employers seem to be looking for.

In the current university climate, however, the myopic meanderings of business model administrators, many of whom have little experience in the classroom, make it increasingly difficult to teach these skills. They are usually in the business of processing rather than teaching students, a tactic that impresses public officials bent on educational austerity. This tendency translates into an attraction for large classes, distance education, and the next new thing, Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. It is difficult to teach a student how to think, how to write or how to analyze in an exceedingly large classroom or, worse yet, from a distant studio. For that you need small classes, more administrative and public support for social science and humanistic study, and more engaged professor-student interaction.

Such a prescription is good for everybody. Professors get to mentor their students. Students gain the analytical skills they need to successfully enter the marketplace, and administrators create a campus climate that will attract positive public attention -- as well as thousands of new students competing for entry into a diverse university community that will more fully educate future generations.