“Skills” Education & the Future of Higher Ed

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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.

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