College Education

Last week I read a troubling statistic: 45% of students made no significant improvement in critical thinking, reasoning, or writing skills during their first two years of college; and 36% showed no improvement after four years of schooling. This comes from Richard Arum of New York University, who studied more than 2,300 students at 24 U.S. colleges and universities for his book Academically Adrift.

Private colleges are charging on average about $50K per year now (that is $200K for four years), and state universities are slightly under $20K per year. This is an awful lot of money to be parting with in the context of the above statistic. Ironically, I had dinner with my dear friend Thom last Tuesday. He mentioned he was mentoring a class valedictorian who was having a tough time finding a job. I hear consistent stories across the country of college graduates not feeling prepared for the fast-changing world we all live in now.  College graduates have historically been told they have little experience or context for the workplace, and to address that many institutions have launched intensive internship and mentoring programs. This is good. But is it really addressing the root cause of the problem? It is my contention that both parents and students should be demanding (as paying customers of a service) a significant overhaul to the academic structure and curricula in colleges and universities.

Let’s start with curricula. In most colleges and universities, the curriculum has not changed in several decades. There might be new courses added here and there, and the modality of delivery may have changed to incorporate more electronic platforms (emails between faculty and students, webinars, online interactivity, etc.) but the curricula is essentially the same. How is it possible that what students needed for the workplace twenty years ago could be the same as what they need today? I have been told that curricula in most colleges and universities is “owned” almost exclusively by the faculty–that is, they have full authority over what is taught to students with the administration having little control over it. This leads to the second potential root cause.

How is it possible that people preparing students for the workplace twenty years ago are in fact the same people who are doing it today? This may seem like an unfair question as you might assume I am implying that faculty are themselves not learning and upgrading their skills. If one looks at the organizational model for faculty, the goal is tenure. This means job security for life. I am sorry, but I do not feel there should be any working professional who should have this security. Every professional (someone getting paid for a service) should wake up every morning (or week or month) and consider how to make themselves better and actually do it, if not for the quality of the service they provide then certainly for the fear of becoming outdated and irrelevant. Tenure, in fact, is a security system for only one side of the transaction (transferring knowledge to those who are paying for it). Most faculty, especially at undergraduate levels, have spent little to no time in the very workplace that they are preparing the students for. From firsthand accounts, undergraduate students seem to be going through a matrix of requirements that provides no context for the world they see unraveling through dozens of media channels, and they are being taught by faculty who seem even farther from the reality of not just today’s workplace, but that of tomorrow.

So what is the solution? I have brought this issue up to college trustees and administration officials at several colleges. They all acknowledge the issue and actually seem to agree with me, but are unable to make changes without faculty buy-in.  This should not be a surprise. It goes against our nature to institute a change that would force us to transform ourselves. Yet, this is exactly what is needed. Tenure should be abolished. It is an archaic system that serves no purpose in the world we live in today other than the faculty it unfairly protects. Curricula should be overhauled immediately and only students and parents can make this happen. If people in Egypt and the middle east, victims of archaic political structure, can risk their lives for a better future for their children, parents and students can and should orchestrate the same necessary change so that they too can have a better future. In the latter case, as a paying customer, you should demand it.

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