Due in part to a continually struggling economy, the demographics of the average college student have shifted in recent years. It’s no secret that the average age of students has been climbing for years—various reports indicate the mean age is now somewhere in the high 20’s. As a response to this (and probably contributing to the trend, as well) colleges have been adjusting their focus to target the preferences and objectives of these older students. Rather than ensuring students get what they NEED in the long term, they are providing what students WANT in the short term—skills that position them for a job right now. This response of higher education is akin to a parent feeding a child a candy bar to cure immediate hunger pains while neglecting the fact that the child needs good nutrition for long term healthy growth.
The landscape of higher education has drastically shifted. Brick-and-mortar institutions that have historically been bastions of thought leadership now have to compete with colleges that are touting ‘real-world’ job skills and ‘hands-on experience’ to put students on the fast track to employment. Community colleges, for-profits, and vocational skills are competing for students who want to be in school today and employed tomorrow—or are very often employed full time as they attend classes. In the end, there is a trade-off. Students may have their hunger satisfied with skills for an entry-level job, but are they developing intellectual skills and ‘habit of mind’ that will serve them in the long run?
Contributing this trend, many colleges are emphasizing metrics that can be easily measured in the short term over life skills that can’t easily be quantified in the long term. After all, when a syllabus is drafted, isn’t the emphasis on the tangible—what the student will KNOW, DO, or PRODUCE at the end of the course? And in an online environment, how much emphasis is placed on students successfully meeting easily measurable objectives? Often, too much.
Intellectual character and virtues have often historically been sequestered in the liberal studies department. History and Philosophy were logical places to promote integrity, inquiry-driven learning, and values beyond oneself. The fields we today refer to as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) could focus on the mechanics of life, with little more than a nod to the meaning of life. So what happens when today’s students flood programs that emphasize the hands-on skills and practical knowledge without providing rigor in personal development? We may not fully realize this today or tomorrow, but the evidence will creep into our lives five or ten years from now.
Today’s colleges and universities must recognize that they are preparing students not for a job, or even a career, but for life. This may not be what students are always asking for but it is what society requires. Subject matter experts, course designers, and instructors must work together to push for really learning that goes beyond the facts and skills. “What the student will know” is not enough. The student must recognize the significance and usefulness of that which is known. “What the student will do” is a good start. How the student will recognize when and why it is done shows analytical prowess. “What the student will produce” in a course is important. But more importantly, will the student be able to describe the significance of the product, other than in terms of “I had to do it to pass the class?”