06/27/2012 05:53 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2012

Preparing Students For A Lifetime Of Success

On May 30, 2012, The New York Times published an article about the disparity among U.S. cities regarding the percentage of the population with a college degree.

In 1970, the percentage of college-educated urban residents averaged 12 percent among U.S. cities, and the spread among cities was relatively small: nearly all cities were within 5 percentage points of this average. In 2011, though, the average percentage of urban residents with college degrees was much higher (32 percent); the spread among cities was also much greater: only half of the cities were within 5 percentage points of the average. While some cities and their economies enjoy a high percentage of college grads, the highest being 46.8 percent in the D.C. area, other cities suffer from a low percentage, like Bakersfield, CA, with only 15.0 percent.

Why is this shift of concern? Cities depend on college graduates to drive their economy by creating jobs, inventing new ideas, becoming business owners and entrepreneurs, attracting employers, and by purchasing expensive services, homes, and entertainment.

The article also touches on a question that is hovering over the country but not widely debated: the value of a two-year versus a four-year degree. On one side, the article notes, students are increasingly collecting competencies from a range of institutions that target the skills and knowledge for specific jobs. On the other side, a source in the article notes, "four-year degrees still tend to have the biggest impact on economic development."

As president of a four-year institution, I agree with the stance that the greatest economic impact comes from a coherent four-year sequence of study and practice. At my college, we do not just train students for particular jobs; we prepare them for a lifetime of change and adaptation and provide them with the most important skill of all: the skill to learn new skills. Curiosity, inventiveness, collaborative ability, and deep communication skills come not from a collection of targeted, skills-based courses but from the challenge of a sequence of increasingly sophisticated topics, approaches, and learning outcomes addressed across a multiplicity of disciplines. The development of critical thinking skills needs to take place over time with the exposure to, and engagement with, a tremendous diversity of perspective that is the hallmark of a four-year education.

At Rhode Island College, we have just undergone a major revision of our general education program. Rather than view general education as a two-year sentence to be endured before studying a major, general education now extends across the four years and into the majors. For example, written communication is now taught in first-year writing, first-year seminars, and an interdisciplinary course called Connections, and embedded in the discipline in a course or courses that each major identifies. When one reviews the writing outcome that the program is intended to achieve, it is apparent that writing must be taught across all four years rather than in a single, quick-fix course:

Written Communication: Students will understand the different purposes of writing and employ the conventions of writing in their major fields. Students will produce writing that is well organized, supported by evidence, demonstrates correct usage of grammar and terminology, and is appropriate to the academic context.

The two-year degree has always provided great value as a source of much-needed training for specific jobs as well as retraining for those jobs since they often require updating as technology changes. The four-year degree, though, if it is awarded after four-years of coherent, sequenced study of general education and a major, lays the path to a lifetime of employment and a robust economic future for our cities.