‘Value’ plan leaves out learning

President Obama proposes rating colleges and universities on access, graduation rates, graduate earnings and affordability, writes Richard Hersh in an essay on Inside Higher EdWhat about learning?

Myriad studies over the past several decades document that too little “higher” learning is taking place; college students do not make significant gains in critical thinking, problem solving, analytical reasoning, written communication skills, and ethical and moral development.

Institutions respond to rewards, Hersh writes. Linking federal student aid to easily measured goals “will steer colleges and universities further away from higher learning.”

Hersh is co-author of We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education.

Graduates regret education choices

A majority of two-year and four-year college graduates would choose a different major or school or both, if they had a second chance, reports Voice of the Graduate, a McKinsey survey of recent graduates. Health majors were the most satisfied with their choice. Students who had majored in visual and performing arts, language, literature, and the social sciences were the least satisfied.

Forty percent of two-year graduates and 30 percent of four-year graduates said they were unprepared for the workforce. One third of community college graduates said their quantitative reasoning skills were inadequate.

Nearly half of four-year graduates were in jobs that did not require a four-year degree, notes Gadfly’s Amber Winkler.  Many ended up in retail and restaurant work. However, most science and engineering graduates found professional work.

Liberal-arts graduates of four-year colleges . . .  tend to be lower paid, less likely to be employed full time, and less prepared for the workplace.

McKinsey says that we need to do a better job of communicating job and income trends to studentsTrue. But the evidence is also mounting that maybe college isn’t the right choice for everyone.

Fifty-one percent of underemployed young Americans wish they’d chosen a different educational path, according to Underemployed in America, a survey by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS). The survey included people 21 to 35 years old. Sixty percent with only a high school diploma, 53 percent with an associate degree and 48 percent with a bachelor’s degree regret their choices.

Employers said job seekers should acquire a broad education providing a “diverse knowledge base.” The underemployed said it’s better to learn specific job skills.

The underemployed overestimate their skills – especially writing and problem solving — and problem-solving skills – compared with employers’ views.

Both groups believe for-profit colleges and trade schools do about as well in preparing students for the workforce as four-year public or private nonprofit colleges and universities. However, both have less faith in community colleges.

College teaches conflict resolution

When fights broke out between girls at a Maryland alternative school, Howard Community College‘s conflict resolution counselors mediated the dispute and trained school staff in mediation techniques,  reports the Baltimore Sun. The fighting stopped at Homewood Center and suspensions, behavior referrals and unexcused absences went down.

The Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center has been dealing with conflict in the Howard community for the past 22 years, including boundary disputes between neighbors, anger-management issues of college athletes and disagreements among teacher groups.

The mediation center also is working with high schools to improve detention programs.

HCC took over the Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center in 2001, 11 years after it began as a grassroots organization. Students can earn an associate degree in conflict resolution and transfer to Salisbury University, which also has a Center for Conflict Resolution. The center also employs 150 non-student volunteers, who take at least 40 hours of mediation training at the college.

. . . the center uses methods derived from the Bethlehem, Pa.-based International Institute for Restorative Practices, which encourages authority figures — teachers, supervisors and law enforcement — to involve their communities in creating solutions to problems rather than resorting to punitive measures.

“Restorative work is about if an incident has happened, it’s helping people, especially juveniles, to recognize that the harm they caused has an effect on people,” said (director Kathryn) Rockefeller.

When Homewood Center students felt the peace was threatened, they told the assistant principal they needed to “circle up again,” said Principal Tina Maddox. “That was a sign that … it was producing problem-solving skills, conflict resolution that our students had not normally experienced.”

Great Books belong in community college classes

Community college students should study the great books of western civilization, writes J.M. Anderson, dean of humanities, fine arts, and social sciences at Illinois Valley Community College, in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary.

President Obama’s stress on community colleges as job-training centers  encourages students to think community colleges are  “a means to a credential or a steppingstone to a four-year school,” not a place of learning, he writes. Colleges should provide a “streamlined curriculum centered around the great books” to establish “the unity of knowledge and purpose that is missing in community colleges.”

Now curricula are diffuse, and course catalogs encourage students to think of education as a smorgasbord rather than a holistic undertaking.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard students say, when they see literature under required readings on my course syllabus for Western Civ, “I thought this was a history class, not an English class.” A streamlined curriculum would highlight the interdisciplinary nature of great books while combining both the particular information and the general knowledge they provide.

A great-books curriculum enables students to connect ideas across curriculum areas, Anderson writes.

Because great books are inherently challenging and complex, they are well suited for developing cognitive abilities and stimulating higher-order thinking. They expose students to momentous ideas while teaching them how to penetrate to the root of things, follow their intellect, and acquire genuine understanding. They force students to stretch their minds by thinking through complex arguments in all fields of inquiry.

A liberal education isn’t a luxury, Anderson argues. Studying the great books teaches “all the skills that corporate America now clamors for in college graduates,” such as “effective communication, critical thinking, ethic and civic responsibility, problem solving, quantitative literacy. . . . In tough economic times especially, community college students need great books, not simply to train them for careers, but to train them for life.”

Study liberal arts, get a job

Liberal arts classes aren’t frills, writes Rob Jenkins, an English professor at Georgia Perimeter College. Students prepare for success in the workforce by learning to write, analyze and solve problems in liberal arts classes.

Many Americans learn at a two-year college most of what they will ever learn—in a formal setting, at least—about writing, critical thinking, the history of our culture and civilization, the environment, and human behavior. 

. . . Employers rank communication and analytical skills among the most important attributes they seek in new hires, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Perhaps those of us who teach those very skills at community colleges should embrace the integral role we play in preparing the nation’s workers rather than rejecting the idea of work-force development as somehow beneath us.

Communicating clearly in writing is a key to business success, so “one of the best things we can do for students is to require them to write—a lot,”  Jenkins argues.

Employers complain that many workers have difficulty thinking for themselves.

How many of us actually require our students to analyze material in an in-depth way (as opposed to providing them with convenient study sheets)? How many of us require them to draw inferences, make connections, reach and defend conclusions? Our liberal-arts courses are the ideal places to teach those cognitive skills that students need to be successful in the workplace.

Finally, liberal-arts instructors should connect what students are learning in class to the “real world.”

All students need liberal education

All students need a liberal education, whether they attend an elite liberal arts college or a community college, argues Mary Spilde, president of Lane Community College in Oregon, in Community College Times.

A liberal education teaches speaking and writing skills, critical thinking and problem solving, global awareness and the ability to understand public policy debates and be responsible citizens, Spilde writes.

A recent national employer survey commissioned by AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities) found that employers believe that colleges — including community colleges — can best prepare graduates for long-term career success by helping them develop both a broad range of skills and knowledge and in-depth skills in a specific field. They are, in fact, now demanding that their employees use a much broader set of skills and have higher levels of learning and knowledge than in the past.

. . . With programs like learning communities, service learning, and cooperative education, community colleges are building ladders of opportunity that will allow students to quickly become prepared for today’s workplace while also being positioned for the lifelong learning they will need over the long haul.

Students need both practical, career and technical programs and the  knowledge and intellectual skills developed by a liberal education, Spilde argues.