“Skills” Education & the Future of Higher Ed


Last week, I wrote about a recent AAC&U report on a skills gap between what employers want and what students believe they can do. This week, testing giant ETS released its own “skills gap” report, using data from an international assessment with very different measures than those used by AAC&U.  We might expect this difference, given that AAC&U is run by and for educators and educational institutions and the same can certainly not be said for ETS.  The real problem here is not with the simple fact of the report being issued, as you might imagine, but with its content.

Most of the media coverage has focused on the (quite right and interesting) claims the authors make about how educational opportunity and access correlates to socioeconomic status or parental education level. When I first heard about this report, I didn’t view it as a something that might threaten higher ed.  In fact, I was planning to write about an entirely different subject this week.  Then, I read about this report before spending two days in a strategic planning retreat, after which I read the full report.

So, just what is the problem? Inside the report, the authors take on higher education with the following statements, among others, emphases mine:

  • “By exploring both in absolute and relative terms the skills associated with different levels of educational attainment, these data shed light on both the quantity of education our young adults have received and some evidence about the quality of our secondary and post-secondary educational institutions.” p.19
  • “Therefore, understanding how we gain skills, and what levels of skills we have—not just in K-12 education, but also in formal higher post-secondary institutions and informal education—is critical to grasping how our economy functions and how individuals within our society rise and fall with the shifting demands of the global marketplace.” p. 20
  • “U.S. millennials who have successfully attained undergraduate and graduate degrees demonstrate skill levels below those of all but a few of the participating countries.” p. 23

Are you ready for the kicker? Here you go:

And finally, if a large percentage of our adults are receiving post-secondary education but still do not demonstrate that they possess adequate skills, what benefit does that education provide and at what cost?” p. 21-22

This is where it becomes important to understand what skills the PIAAC, the data source used by ETS here, actually tests. The report addresses three categories: literacy, numeracy, and “problem-solving in technology-rich environments”.

Like many academics, I resist the call to skills-based education, but that is not my chief  concern here. These statements—and that final question—represent a set of value judgments that do not fall in line with what most higher education institutions are doing—or should be doing today.  Instead, it forwards, though subtly and through implication, a claim that quality higher education would be training students in these skills, and if that is not what we are doing, then we are failing our students at great cost to them, both in the short term, monetary form of high tuition and then again when they are unable to get jobs.

So, just what happens if the influence of a testing giant like ETS or a particular policy shop that isn’t really run by educators gains significant traction in government or public opinion with claims like this?  It calls back to mind Margaret Spellings and what many of my then-colleagues in DC called “No Freshmen Left Behind,” which was a recipe for disaster.  It should be the educators, who know what post-secondary education looks like, really shaping this national conversation. We owe it to our profession to stand up and speak back to and even in place of attempts (like this report) to measure the football field’s worth of work we do with a 12-inch ruler.  Higher education must continue to be about more than skills—and certainly more than these three categories—and that is where some things we often eschew in our colleges and universities become important, most prominently assessment and strategic planning.  If we don’t tell ourselves and the world what we are doing and what evidence we have that we are doing it well, someone will do it for us.  This recent report is just another example of that.


Diversity & Employability


The AAC&U recently released a report called “Falling Short?: College Learning and Career Success.” Here is the press release.

Much of the news coverage—and that press release—focus on the differences between what students thought about their career preparedness and what employers thought about the same. However, the very questions raise a different issue: the presence and integration of diversity on campuses across the country.

Diversity can mean so many things, and on my own campus, we have been reexamining what “diversity” means to our community. Given my position, I am often the person in the room raising the question of cultural diversity.  The questions in this survey and responses seem to make clear that the ability to communicate, build teams, and produce products across cultures is important, but how can higher education institutions do a better job of that?

First, we have to value cultural diversity across campus by recognizing it and greeting it with respect and a desire to learn. By this I mean that we need to acknowledge that a student who has just arrived in the US from, say, Kazakhstan, has a set of cultural (and not just language) challenges that will be different from those of a student from the same country or region who has been in the US for two years.  But they will both have challenges.  We have to see how an African American student, a Latino student, and a white student from the same city will all bring different cultural understandings of education to campus.

Then, we need to serve those differences in our classrooms, offices, and residence halls. Yes, students who come from places where education was segregated by gender will have some difficulty integrating into a co-ed campus or co-ed classrooms.  Yes, students who were raised to listen to teachers and take in knowledge will struggle to participate in some classes, depending on the student dynamic.  And our responses need to come with the recognition that these are often cultural barriers and not a language deficit or lack of ability.

To achieve this second step, higher education leaders need to equip their campuses—across units—with the tools to do this well. This can take a host of forms, depending on one ‘s campus context, but it requires identifying areas where development is needed and dedicating resources to faculty development, staff with particular expertise in student affairs, a reconfigured Writing Center—just to name a very few.  This kind of planning is necessary not just for the future but for the present.  This diversity is already here and everywhere, but if we don’t know how to support it and work within it, we cannot serve as the role models students need when encountering difference and help them better adapt to what America’s international workplaces demand.


Introducing Strategic Revision


Many years ago, when I was in the midst of my research on contingent academic labor, I was asked to blog about this topic from a scholarly, activist, and personal perspective. At the time, I had been working as an adjunct faculty member for a handful of years and was actively involved in public advocacy. I said no. Not because I didn’t think the issue was important but because I knew my stance on the growing contingency of faculty, and I knew my opinions would not change. A blog, to me, as a reader of several academic blogs, should be something that evolves—in itself and for its readers. The beauty of electronic publishing is that it needs new content about new and changing ideas to remain current.

Enter Strategic Revision. But first I must answer the whys of this act—why me, why here, and why now.

My years as a faculty member and higher education administrator have taught me that we have the tools to meet the challenges that are already facing US higher education, but we are not connecting the dots. When many of us weren’t looking, the nature of the students in our classrooms changed, and the business model our leaders are working with changed. Leaders making the decisions didn’t have the information those of us on the ground had, and those who could see the details did not see from the broader perspective available to leaders. No one was looking at both views, adjusting the lens for the variable perspective necessary to evolve together. Instead, we all fell into various degrees of fear about the dire state of higher education and failed to notice that, if we did not adapt to the growth in first-generation students, those not born in the US, those whose first language is not English, those fears would become a reality. It seemed—and seems—a perfect storm of “we are not ready.”

But we have the tools, and we can adapt—on all sides of the faculty/admin line. We can listen to each other, learn more about the system, change it, show it to students with greater transparency. Here in this space that I am calling Strategic Revision, I will be blogging about the current and future state of U.S. higher education and trying to think through how we get from where we are to where we should be and need to be. I’m doing this because I believe in the system and its possibilities; I believe that knowing the system helps you master it and change it for the better. We don’t need to throw away everything we’ve built in US colleges and universities; we need strategic revision.