Trends in Higher Education

By Victoria C. Newman, Founder & Executive Director, Greenwich Education Group and Co-Director of Day and Boarding School Advisory Services

At a recent Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) conference in Indianapolis, Jeff Selingo, contributing editor forThe Chronicle of Higher Education, argued compellingly that America’s higher education system is broken. The hyper-competitive marketplace that our children now face places an ever-increasing importance on obtaining a higher education.  Employers need a workforce that combines a solid academic foundation with communication skills, interpersonal capabilities, such as team-building and cultural awareness, and the ability to adapt to changing demands.  Selingo questions whether college is in fact the only option to obtain these needed skills as well as whether college itself is the best choice for many high school graduates.

It has been repeatedly shown through economic studies that the wages of a college graduate are greater than those of a high school graduate.  Thirty years ago, a college graduate made 40 percent more than a high school graduate, but now the gap is about 83 percent. Even a cashier with a college degree makes more than a cashier without one. Yet many specialists in higher education are questioning whether the traditional process of going straight to college after high school is the appropriate route for all students.

Selingo is also the author of College (Un)Bound, a 2013 book that asserts that not all 18 year-olds are ready for a four-year college.  A lack of alternatives such as national service, apprenticeships and other gap year options often results in college becoming an automatic “next step.” Selingo believes that many students need to consider other choices, such as two-year technical degrees, which some studies show can result in higher initial wages for its graduates than for those receiving bachelor’s degrees.

Highlighting what he calls “unready students” who often fail to complete college, Selingo points out that these educational victims are left with high debt levels and no degrees;  “Simply pushing more people through colleges and universities is not the definition of a successful higher-education system in the minds of most experts.”

Acknowledging that the future economy needs more Americans with a high-quality education after high school, Selingo also notes that training comes in many forms and is often provided by employers rather than by educational institutes.  “There is certainly a place for purely practical training programs within our broader goal to be first in the world in an educated work force, but the question increasingly should be whether all of those programs need to be housed at expensive four-year colleges.” 

The higher education process is going through significant changes.  The way students now acquire information, toggling between devices and sources and working collaboratively, has transformed the learning process.  “The question now is how to build an educational system around this new information ecosystem,” states Selingo. He concludes that a new diverse higher-education system is needed: one that is flexible, responsive, and accountable; one that is not wedded to a one-size-fits all approach, but instead encompasses face-to-face, hybrid, and online-only educational options.

This does not mean that there isn’t a role for what has historically been called a “liberal arts education.”  Often disparaged for its lack of focus on specific professional skills, such an education may impart in a student the qualitative capabilities sought after in the real-world economy.  Selingo himself notes, “Top business executives in various surveys and interviews say they like workers who are creative, adaptable, and have the ability to communicate and think critically -- all telltale signs of a classic liberal arts education.”

At the forefront, explains Selingo, is the trait of “adaptability,“ which he feels is one of the most important skills our college graduates can possess. In fact, he recently referred to a poll of LinkedIn influencers, where adaptability ranked as the most important trait that a 22 year-old could possess as they enter the workforce, above people skills, resilience and knowledge. They need to be able to “learn, unlearn, and relearn” vital information in order to be competitive in today’s job market.

Listed below are four of the websites he recommends that college graduates can use to assist them in mastering these crucial skills.

1. http://www.enstituteu.com/

The first national apprenticeship program for 21st century careers in business, technology, design and entrepreneurship.

2. http://ventureforamerica.org/

A program that helps to build the skills and network you need to become a successful entrepreneur.

https://generalassemb.ly/online

Learn online from top practitioners of programming, business and design.

4. https://www.edx.org

EdX offers free online classes and MOOCs from the world's best universities. Topics include business, computer science, finance, history, literature, math and more.

As another school year is nearing its end and high school students will be entering the next phase of life – the college years.  Selingo’s views about both the effectiveness of a college education in preparing oneself for future work and whether it is actually the appropriate next step for many are questions that both parents and students should pause and consider.  Questioning assumptions is a skill that is learned in many college courses. Perhaps it is time for educators and society to start questioning the theories regarding what constitutes higher education.