How Higher Education Fails Us All

04/02/2012 01:54 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2012

Higher education is often touted as 'the way out' of difficult circumstances. When people say this they usually mean higher education can help the individual elevate him or herself. In the best scenario higher education improves both the life of the individual and society. College is meant to prepare graduates for competition on the job market. It is also intended to prepare graduates to tackle contemporary challenges -- hopefully finding solutions to the social, health and environmental crises of our time. In this respect, higher education is supposed to create the researchers and innovators of tomorrow. If we evaluate the success of higher education based on these outcomes, we are failing.

Fortunately, the skills needed to get a job in today's market are the same skills required to solve the major problems of our time. So, if we can get higher education to function properly we have a real shot at far-reaching success. Here are the skills that research shows all college graduates need in order to compete in the global job market: critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, innovative thinking and a sense of a globalized world. These are the same skills needed to address contemporary challenges. The questions are: why is higher education falling short and how can it be fixed?

Academic institutions are structured around disciplines (each field -- biology, psychology, etc. is housed independently with professors who specialize in a small area of that field). The entire academic enterprise is based on disciplinarity even though this outdated system doesn't work. The majority of courses teach the content of one isolated discipline. Students are required to major in a field of their choosing and often devote most of their education to courses in that area.

Problems in the real-world -- sustainability, health and well-being, violence -- do not fit into the narrow boundaries of any one discipline. These problems require us to pool our expertise and resources and tackle problems responsively, not based on narrow disciplinary training. Let's take a problem that has been getting a lot of attention recently: bullying.

Whether it's on the school playground or Facebook, many young people are being tormented, often with dire consequences. This is an issue that concerns many parents -- myself included. Bullying involves three parties: the bully, the bullied and the bystanders. There have been many studies done about bullying but they are usually limited. For example, a psychologist may look at the effect of being bullied, an education researcher may look at the role of teachers and school administrators in cultures of bullying, a sociologist may look at peer culture, and so forth. However, bullying can only be tackled by considering multiple dimensions collectively. Further, bullying can't be addressed by only bringing academic researchers together. All relevant stakeholders need to be brought into the research process: parents, teachers, school bus drivers, after school program personnel, etc. The organization of higher education doesn't facilitate this kind of research nor does it cultivate these research skills in graduating students. College students are likely to read study about bullying in a psychology or sociology class but it is unlikely they are given the chance to consider the problem in a comprehensive way.

Higher education can be restructured in order to meet our collective objectives -- and this can be accomplished using existing resources. The cost to our graduates and our society is too high to simply maintain the status quo. If higher education is going to be 'the way out' for the individual or society, it needs to cultivate skills with real-world value.