With unemployment rates among college graduates rising, the well-regarded reputation of higher education in the United States teeters precariously between relevance and irrelevance. In Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, he describes how small incidents can become "moments of critical mass" that trigger widespread changes in public opinion. Perceptions like "relative worth" and "value in the marketplace" balance on a razor thin edge and the "tipping point" for public opinion of higher education is now upon us.
Last year more than 1.5 million new bachelor's degree holders reported being either unemployed or underemployed — a national tragedy by any measure. These young people enrolled in college with the expectation that a degree would improve their lives. They certainly deserved better.
The general public watches helplessly as the cost of college tuition goes up every year. They have observed that more and more students are burdened with overwhelming school loan debt after college. They have seen unemployment lines growing longer across the country, and have noticed a rise in the number of recent college graduates waiting in these lines. Out of loyalty and respect to its many revered institutions, the public has been very slow to hold higher education accountable in such affairs. But make no mistake — if substantive changes do not take place, the tipping point of public opinion will shift to be against higher education. Even now, many college graduates are recognizing they have been ill-prepared for today's workforce, and they are beginning to ask, "Was my college education worth it?"
Earlier this year, I attended a national higher education conference and heard a prominent liberal arts college president passionately articulate a commonly held conviction by many people within higher education. The premise of his keynote was "the best way to prepare students to succeed in the marketplace is through the tried and true virtues of liberal education." "The purpose of higher education," according to the presenter, "is to teach young people integrity, critical thinking skills, and an appreciation for diversity and the arts." I listened in disbelief as he confidently surmised that "employers hire college graduates and then train them on-the-job, so therefore, workforce skills training is not the role or responsibility of higher education." No supposition could be more out-of-step with present-day realities.
Yes undeniably, many college graduates do succeed in life when instilled with integrity, critical thinking skills, and an appreciation for diversity and the arts; but for many new graduates, this is not enough. The character-building virtues of liberal education will always have a place within the college curriculum, but colleges must also make room for marketable and employable skills training as well. These are the "value added" components students desperately need and employers reward. Many recent surveys of employers have revealed they are not simply interested in hiring employees with book knowledge; they also want new employees to possess technical skills and/or experience.
The real problem for higher education lies within the traditionalist attitudes of many practitioners of higher education. In the same four to five years it has taken to produce the last set of college graduates, the U.S. economy has changed dramatically. The workforce has become far more competitive and employers much more selective about those whom they choose to hire. The public recognizes the world is changing, and they soon will demand higher education conform accordingly. In this new and troubled economy, colleges and universities cannot afford a "business-as-usual" operational approach to producing graduates.
The tipping point for higher education is occurring. Public opinion dictates that it is time for change and compromise. There must be an acknowledgement that workforce skills training is within the role and responsibility of higher education. There must be a curricular balance struck and until a serious discussion takes place on college campuses around the country about applied learning, students will continue to suffer the consequences.
There are real differences between theoretical instruction and applied instruction. Too much emphasis on one or the other can lead to problems. While the exclusive use of applied "hands-on" learning methods can lead to graduates with skill sets so narrow that they cannot advance their careers beyond initial employment; the overemphasis of theoretical learning, to the exclusion of applied learning, can lead to graduates that are unable to even obtain initial employment.
Those who advocate for more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) training in higher education are on the right track. Universities must find ways to adopt more applied instructional methodologies at all levels and offer more program options in fields of advanced and emerging technology. And prospective students must become more aware of the expectations employers now have and great opportunities offered to them through applied instruction.
Tipping points can go both ways. Let's hope higher education and students alike will shift their thinking and bring our great nation more in line with current and future realities.