Can College Prepare Students for the Uncertainties of the 21st Century Economy?
In some circles — populated by the kind of people who make totally-off-the-mark lists like “10 Worst College Degrees to Earn in 2015″ — the results of educational software company Instructure’s latest study may be seen as a sort of vindication.
These people have been saying for years now that colleges — especially certain (usually liberal arts) degree programs — don’t adequately prepare students for the working world. In “Career Preparedness and Lifelong Learning,” Instructure seems to support that argument. According to the study, which surveyed roughly 8,000 current students and college graduate from around the world, only 1 in 12 students feels that college has fully prepared them for their careers.
Victory for the naysayers? Not so fast, says Jared Stein, Instructure’s vice president of research and education.
“Only 1 in 12 say they were fully prepared, but there was generally more satisfaction than dissatisfaction,” Stein explains.
Overall, students felt 67.7 percent prepared for their careers by their college experiences. So, it’s not complete satisfaction, but it’s hardly a sign that college is worthless. I’d rather be two-third prepared than not prepared at all.
But that’s not to say that everything is prefect in college world. No, there’s definitely some room for improvement, Stein says.
“I think this study reveals that [college] is not [doing a bad job], but it’s not perfect, either,” he explains.
Many students — especially in the U.S. — attend college with the specific aim of preparing themselves for certain career paths, and many colleges invest extensively in such career preparedness programs.
But investing more resources in career preparedness isn’t exactly the best way for colleges to better serve students, according to Stein. Rather, he thinks colleges should be doing more to prepare students for the uncertainty they’ll face once they enter the workforce.
The Job-for-Life Is Dead
Our own Kazim Ladimeji has written extensively about the fact that, in today’s economy, very few — if any — of us can expect to stay with one company for our entire lives. Furthermore, he’s gone on to explore why few of us can even expect to stay with one career until we hit retirement.
For workers today, the reality is that job- and career-hopping are the new normal, which may partially explain why 29.8 percent of graduates of four-year degree programs don’t end up working in their chosen fields of study.
It doesn’t make a ton of sense, then, for colleges to focus on preparing students for one specific career path. This kind of education can be useful, sure, but it won’t be terribly helpful when a former engineer decides, for whatever reason, that it’s time to become a middle school teacher instead.
The rapidly advancing pace of technology plays a role in all of this, too. Every few years, it seems, some piece of technology comes along that either totally redefines an existing career or opens up doors into brand new career paths. How can colleges help students navigate these dramatic shifts when it’s impossible to predict what these shifts will actually look like when they arrive?
“Even if career preparedness is what students go to college for, the uncertainty [of today]s economy] is kind of a bigger factor,” Stein says. “What we’re suggesting is that colleges need to look beyond career preparedness and think more about the skills students will need to adapt, whether that’s to the changes they will encounter within their careers or as they have to shift their expectations to a different career focus.”
Teaching Students to Prepare for Unpredictable Futures Through Lifelong Learning
On the surface, “lifelong learning” may sound like a vague, “squishy” kind of idea, but Stein and Instructure concretely define the concept for the purpose of the study as “any kind of learning that happens throughout your lifetime that supports your personal goals.”
Lifelong learning can happen in formal classrooms, or it can happen informally, during one’s day-to-day life. It can even happen “non-formally” (that is, through “organized or semi-organized learning outside of a formal program”).
Regardless of how or where it occurs, Stein says, “[l]ifelong learning is about having the skills so that you can go and accomplish your goals by learning on your own and finding the experiences and resources that you need to get there.”
By teaching students how to become lifelong learners — how to seek out the experiences and resources they need to accomplish their goals — colleges can go a long way toward preparing students to cope successfully with the volatile economy they’re destined (doomed?) to enter.
Stein says that Instructure isn’t “quite ready to present a broad vision” to guide higher education toward better equipping students for uncertainty, but he does have two “common sense, straightforward” recommendations he can make right now.
First, colleges can start by ensuring that students have the “proper expectations for what life after college will be like.”
“My college experience didn’t ask me to consider the strategies I’d need to make career shifts throughout my life,” Stein says. “[Those shifts] are part of the 21st century, and I think that’s where colleges and universities can start to help students be more prepared.”
Second, colleges can focus on teaching students the skills necessary for self-directed learning.
“That way, every student who leaves college not only has the knowledge and skills that will be helpful in their chosen career fields, but also, the skills they need to keep learning effectively on their own in any career, even if they have to shift from one to another,” Stein says.
So, no, it doesn’t seem that colleges are tremendous wastes of time. (Nor, would I wager, are liberal arts degrees — but that’s a fight I’ll have to have another time with anyone who wants to pick it.) They do a pretty decent job of preparing students for their careers. What higher education really needs to work on is preparing students for what happens when they don’t (or can’t) get the career they wanted.