During the last two weeks, the Republican and Democratic parties have held political conventions and released their platforms for the upcoming election. Each includes at least a bit of language on higher education policy, and, as the president of a 4-year public college, I am disheartened by some of their policy positions.
While the parties disagree on a number of recommendations for higher education (including student financial aid), they seem to agree that higher education is almost synonymous with job training. The GOP platform argues for expansion of "...technical institutions, private training schools, online universities, life-long learning, and work-based learning in the private sector..." Further, the Republican platform advocates that we "...make accessible to everyone the emerging alternatives, with their lower cost degrees, to traditional college attendance..." The DNC calls for "partnerships between businesses and community colleges to train two million workers..."
How could anyone not support building our nation's capacity for job training or improving opportunities for employment? However, there is a huge difference between job training and career preparation.
The vast majority of us need jobs to pay the bills, so it is important that college graduates possess marketable skills. It is also important for colleges and universities to consider the needs of various employment sectors when developing or modifying academic programs, but higher education is not simply about training individuals to perform a task that will garner a decent wage. Graduates of 4-year colleges and universities should be more than employable. They should be able to progress on a career path that will sustain them for a lifetime; they should be flexible and responsive to a changing economy; and they should be able to engage in the democratic process that underpins our society.
A baccalaureate degree develops extensive knowledge in an area of academic focus and foundational knowledge of the basic areas of human awareness (including history, science, mathematics, economics, language, and the arts). It also develops the ability to think critically, analyze complex problems, and work within a team. When it comes to gainful employment for graduates of 4-year colleges and universities, our task as educators is to prepare them for their best job, not simply their first job. We need to provide these graduates with the flexibility to respond to the disruptions caused by troubles in the world economy.
Adopting a policy that views higher education solely as job training is extremely dangerous, because it disregards much of the work colleges and universities do in preparing our citizenry and it leaves graduates unprepared to adapt as economies evolve and jobs change. Individuals, in some cases, may be able earn a comfortable living by performing a specific job function they have learned, and that is perfectly admirable and acceptable for those who pursue such a path. What happens, though, when that job function or skill set becomes obsolete? If our graduates are prepared to perform a job but are unprepared to adapt to changing economic, technological, and cultural landscapes, our national economy will repeatedly encounter large swaths of workers who find themselves unemployed or underemployed.
At The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), where I serve as president, our students graduate on time (7th best 4-year graduation rate among public colleges and universities nationally) and are highly prepared for professional careers or graduate study. Our future nurses, accountants, teachers, and engineers all consistently post pass rates well above the national average on their respective professional certification exams. Our students get accepted to the best law schools and our 84 percent medical school acceptance rate is nearly double the national average.
Those numbers are impressive, but they do not explain our full institutional mission or the lifelong success of our alumni. All of TCNJ's students must complete learning requirements that demand intellectual and scholarly growth while exposing them to quantitative reasoning; social change in historical context; behavioral and cultural perspectives; literary, visual, or performing arts; worldviews; natural science; interdisciplinary study; and civic-engaged learning. This is what makes TCNJ graduates well-rounded and vibrant contributors within both their communities and professional fields, throughout their lives.
It is absolutely necessary that, nationally, we do not lose sight of the need for colleges and universities to produce not only skilled technicians but multi-dimensional thinkers and problem solvers, as well. The mission of 4-year colleges and universities is not simply to prepare future employees. We must prepare thoughtful and engaged citizens who have broad perspectives, open minds, and diverse abilities.