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Jobs and the Future of a College Education?

What is the future of a college education in the USA? The recent economic downturn seems to have sharpened the already well-known trend toward seeing a college education largely in terms of enhancing one’s economic security. And as our uncertain economic times become ever more uncertain, it’s easy to understand students wanting to find a more direct linkage between what they study and a possible future career. So majors like business grow and majors like classics or philosophy die away. But will the only future of a college education lie in finding that direct link from major to career? And what will happen, after all, when careers change, when social needs change, or when the career choice that seemed so promising at age 19 seems like a dead end at age 30?

Along these lines you’ll find an interesting piece on Making College ‘Relevant’ by Kate ZernikeĀ in Sunday’s NY Times. She notes the trajectory we’ve been following, pointing, for example, to a UCLA annual survey of freshmen with a virtual flip-flop in attitudes about being “very well-off financially” and “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” between 1971 and 2009. In 1971 37% thought wealth was essential compared to 73% for a meaningful philosophy of life. By 2009 wealth is up by a score of 78% to 48% over a meaningful philosophy of life. But she also points out that increasing specialization and career-training in undergraduate education may not be the answer, noting a recent AACU survey that asked employers what they wanted colleges to teach:

The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted “more emphasis on on the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” 81 percent asked for better critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” and 70 percent were looking for “the ability to innovate and be creative.”

What if the future of a college education isn’t about increasing specialization. What if it is, at least in part, about developing and honing those complex thinking, communication, and interactional skills that are adaptable for many different career paths? Many of these skills have always been at the heart of liberal education. As Zernike’s piece suggests, perhaps the key then is to help students better to understand the importance of these skills and their broad applicability to the world of work beyond college.

Of course, many of these skills are skills we have in mind when we integrate the IF discussion process into the classroom. When students facilitate a deliberative discussion of their peers, and when they explore possibilities together as a group, they are engaging in complex tasks that require analytic and creative reasoning skills, communication skills, and social skills. These skills are skills that should be adaptable to most any discipline–especially if you think of the various disciplines not so much as set bodies of knowledge but as different ways of thinking about reality. These skills will be directly relevant to most any career path those students take. By helping students to practice and hone these skills over time, we might help students to see the relevance of a college education in a new way. And just maybe it could open up a different future for a college education.

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