Women in Maryland Higher Education (WIMHE) Fall Luncheon
November 10, 2017
What is the purpose of education? Has the purpose changed over time? Here are a few definitions from over the years:
1934: “The purpose of education has always been to everyone, in essence, the same – to give the young the things they need in order to develop in an orderly, sequential way into members of society.” –John Dewey
1947: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason but no morals … We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” –Martin Luther King Jr.
1964: “The purpose of education has changed from that of producing a literate society to that of producing a learning society.” –Margaret Ammons
1991: “The one continuing purpose of education, since ancient times, has been to bring people to as full a realization as possible of what it is to be a human being.” –Arthur Foshay
What is the purpose of education in the 21st century? Is it different? The answer to that question depends on who you ask. Last December, I was part of a National Press Club panel that discussed challenges in higher education and recommendations to address the challenges from the National Commission on Financing 21st Century Higher Education. The Commission urged swift action to set the country on course to achieve its goal of 60 percent of Americans age 25 to 64 with a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2025.
Our conversations on the panel sparked a number of promising strategies for improving higher education access for all students, including those who are low-income and/or underrepresented. One of the strategies, however, gave me pause: an insistence that we focus more on apprenticeships rather than internships. That we focus more on jobs rather than careers. That 21st-century students are pragmatic, preferring hard skills over soft skills.
In a 2014 U.S. News & World Report article, the president of the Council of Graduate Schools notes, “We’re seeing people asking some very hard questions about value. They are scrutinizing offer packages, calculating the debt levels they would have to assume, and weighing cost against potential earnings.” Another source in the article states, students “are looking for something different than in-depth scholarship. They are looking for skills.” The article describes 21st-century students as “recession-wary” and practical. It goes as far as saying, “Now the focus has to be on jobs, which is okay.”
Is it really okay? Okay for whom? In higher education, we must be responsible for providing all students with the resources needed to be successful in college and beyond. What about students who come to us – confident they want to make a difference in the world, but not exactly certain of the path it takes to get there? What about students who want to have a broad perspective that prepares them for multiple careers throughout their lifetime? While apprenticeships can serve a purpose for individuals who are certain of the job they want to perform, they can hamper others who seek to let their experiences guide who they become; those who think of life as a journey.
Why have we as a nation become more focused on jobs instead of careers? What are the driving factors? I call the driving factors “The Chaos.” What constitutes the chaos?
Cost and Retention
We’ve already touched on the value proposition. The cost of attendance is a serious consideration for the majority of individuals who want to attend a college or university. Thankfully, we live in a state where both the legislative and executive branches of our government work together with colleges and universities to try to keep costs relatively low.
Nationally, the rising net cost for attendance due to insufficient state and federal support is a major determinant in college selection. For some students, especially those from median or lower income families, the college price tag can be prohibitive. According to the National Commission on Financing 21st Century Higher Education, the total cost of attending a public college or university has been on the rise for decades. In 1985, the average total annual cost for a four-year public institution was $3,682, and a two-year college cost $2,807. By 2014, these costs soared to $17,474 for four-year and $8,928 for two-year. In the face of rising tuition costs, one would expect grant aid to follow suit. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
A recent Inside Higher Ed article reports that tuition and fees are rising faster than grant aid, which adds to the college affordability challenges families face. In order to continue to attract qualified students, colleges and universities have been forced to shoulder more of the grant load. According to Inside Higher Ed, “the federal share of grant aid topped out at 44 percent in 2010-2011 and has since dropped to 32 percent in 2016-2017.” Unsurprisingly, “institutional grant aid rose from 35 percent to 47 percent during that same time frame.” At the institutional level, this is not a sustainable model if we are to meet the needs of the majority of the students.
Cost links directly to student enrollment, and there is a correlation between a family’s socio-economic status and the quality of the education they receive. This, in turn, can have a significant impact on the quality of life after graduation. The value proposition and the return on investment discussions are integral parts of the college selection discussion. We must remain diligent in our efforts to keep cost low without negatively impacting the educational experiences of all students.
The prevalence of higher education ranking systems have also hurt us and added to the chaos. These systems “have increasingly defined the terms of the marketplace in higher education, and the message from the market is clear: wealth, fame, and exclusivity are what gets colleges and universities ahead today.”
For example, U.S. News & World Report rankings, such as the “Best Colleges” list, have hurt us. While the rankings provide an overview for prospective students and parents, critics argue that the system is deeply flawed, “merely a list of criteria that mirrors the superficial characteristics of elite colleges and universities.”
The College Scorecard was an attempt to address this imbalance. Unveiled in 2015 by the U.S. government, the College Scorecard provides information to prospective students and their parents about institutions of higher education for comparison purposes, including cost, graduation rate, and average starting salary after graduation. The challenge is that this system provides only a partial picture and fails to provide a holistic view that accounts for quality of education and other distinguishing characteristics such as the institution’s mission which are important criteria if a student is to thrive at an institution.
Jamienne Studley, former Deputy Undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Education, was a College Scorecard champion. Studley “… had her share of conflict with accrediting agencies and many college leaders over efforts to hold higher education accountable.” Thus, in spite of the herculean efforts of many individuals, “the data-rich initiative collapsed of its own weight.” The collapse, although applauded by many, has left families wondering what might provide a fair assessment of college “quality”.
The failed attempt to create a rating system on how well higher education generates people who get “good paying” jobs right out of college has added fuel to the fire and turned us towards short-term skill development rather than long-term career preparation.
In addition to cost, retention, and rating system factors, another element has cast a shadow over higher education and added to the chaos: anti-intellectualism. In today’s society, anti-intellectualism plays into the idea of short-term skill development over long-term career preparation. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article notes, “The very principle of ideas having value on their own merit, regardless of whether they can be … turned into profits” is being called into question. Perhaps the humanities feel the negative impact of anti-intellectualism most acutely. Higher education has attempted to adopt a strict business model with administrators serving as salespeople. Often, it seems that the shiniest product is hailed a model, regardless of whether or not the shine is the result of real or faux luster.
The culture of anti-intellectualism strips away one of higher education’s greatest assets: breadth. Although anti-intellectualism proponents argue that consumers of today want specific skills to secure high-paying jobs, employers are concerned with the skills or lack thereof that recent graduates possess. In some cases, their concerns relate to the hard skills. In other cases, the skills gap involves soft skills like effective communication, conflict management, and other life skills. Soft skills are essential in order to be successful in any field. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), when paired with hard skills, soft skills are associated with a greater probability of being employed and higher wages. Collectively, they are also associated with a country’s global competitiveness. An education that prepares students with the breadth and depth needed to not only master a skill but also be able to apply the skill outside of the realm of the profession satisfies the need.
So, what do we do? How do we bring clarity and order to the chaos? These are complex issues, and there is not a single solution.
As educators and administrators, we need to realize that each student is unique and has different needs. The changed demographic in our country makes this point all the more relevant. Data released by Eduventures speaks to enrollment influencers and student mindset characteristics segmented by demographics. Some highlights:
- African American and Hispanic students are most influenced by career preparation and affordability
- White students are most influenced by career preparation and core academics
The demographics in our country have been shifting for a long time. With decreasing numbers of white students, increasing numbers of Hispanic students, and relatively stable but lower numbers of African American students, we must pay attention to how the changed demographic affects a student’s college choice. Additionally, the changed demographic has resulted in an increased number of first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students in the pipeline. While these students are key to our future success as a nation, often, they require more resources and support than the “majority” student, which further intensifies the growing economic divide. This is a challenge that we must address.
Eduventures also provides insight into student mindset categories. GenZ has distinct characteristics that differentiate them from Millennials. Understanding our current cohort is a necessary step in reimagining higher education for the 21st-century student. Some highlights from the study include:
- Students with a social focus (they view college primarily a social experience that provides a career foundation) tend to be higher income, more White, and less Hispanic.
- Students with experiential interests (they want hands-on learning with internships, study abroad, and employment) tend to be lower income, more underrepresented and first-generation, more women, and have less interest in STEM.
- Students who are grad school bound tend to have higher academic skill, higher income, more Asian, and more STEM.
Within these various bins, we can parse the student type even further. Jeff Selingo in his most recent book There Is Life After College notes three distinct categories: sprinter, wanderer, or straggler. Sprinters know what they want. They tend to choose a major right away and stick with it. Sprinters are not afraid to take risks and manage to graduate with little to no debt. Although they do well as an undergraduate, wanderers are unsure of what they want to do after college. Often, they graduate from college and “hit a wall of unemployment.” Many wanderers either accept jobs for which they are overqualified or go to graduate school. Stragglers are expected to go to college even though for some, the driver is a pressure to conform to societal expectations. Many stragglers struggle to finish college or do not finish at all. Often, they have a passion but do not see a way to make a viable living with the passion.
Selingo states, “It used to be as long as you had a bachelor’s degree from a college … you would be golden in the job market. But now, the fact of the matter is that there’s a lot of noise around the signal of a bachelor’s degree.” We see some overlaps between the student mindset and characteristic categories. For instance, the sprinters are often from affluent families, the majority of whom are Caucasian. This group aligns with the social focus mindset.
There is a role in higher education for each type of student, and each student should have an opportunity to participate in a high-quality educational experience. It is up to us to make it happen.
Based on the data, we see that a cookie-cutter approach does not enable us to equip all students with the tools needed to be successful. Some argue that we need to consider a new educational platform to offer students an education at the lowest cost possible. More and more, we hear about online education. While the online platform offers unique components like flexibility and efficiency, its one-way delivery system “fails to provide some of the essential aspects of a holistic education, namely the peer-to-peer learning that takes place in seminar rooms, residence halls, and extracurricular activities.” There is also correlative evidence that students from low socio-economic situations and underrepresented groups do not fare as well online as they do in face-to-face educational settings.
A broad education with a global focus plays out beautifully at colleges like St. Mary’s College of Maryland. There is value in an education of breath. An education that encourages students to be innovative and to think critically. An education that gives students “an opportunity to think about their place in the world and how to live a fulfilled life.” An education that is not linked to a single occupation. If we do not realize that our country’s educational value lies in reimagining – not eliminating – our foundation, we are in trouble.
What could this reimagined education that takes into account the changed demographic look like? At St. Mary’s College of Maryland, we realize that a pairing of academics and what are called last-mile skills are what the students of today need to be successful. We are working to develop integrated programming that is intellectual, experiential, and professional and required of all students. The design must be such that it does not increase the time to degree. In this way, the cost of attendance is not negatively impacted. Using this model, we do not sacrifice our breadth while enabling students access to the tools needed to be successful in the real world. Our vision enables students to not only graduate as thinkers but also as doers.
Earlier this year, survey data released by the Center for Creative Leadership found that only 10 percent of learning resulted from formal education; an additional 20 percent resulted from collaborative learning with peers. The remaining 70 percent? From hands-on experiences. The 70:20:10 model is also an important consideration in higher education since research shows that the majority of learning takes place outside of the traditional classroom setting. The results of the survey have several implications on the concept of learning.
- Has delayed outcomes
- Is ongoing and bolstered by experience
- Benefits from conflict resolution
- Adapts to reality
- Involves interaction between a person and the environment, and
- Creates new personal knowledge
Our vision also calls for a renewed focus on students. Within the cloudiness of the higher education chaos, we sometimes find ourselves leaning towards a faculty focus. What tenured faculty want. What works best with their expertise and preferences. What worked for the institution in the past. This is not an effective approach. At the beginning of my talk, we reflected on definitions of the purpose of education over the years. A common thread is education’s role in preparing students for the future. Preparing students for the future is not only the role of faculty; it is the role of the entire village that has a stake in student success, and this village is comprised of faculty, staff, students, and members of the community.
Education is meant to teach critical thinking. It is meant to allow us to realize what it means to be a responsible human being. To never lose our thirst for learning and better understanding the world around us. It is meant to inspire. The national dialog about the value of higher education in its present state seems to have paralyzed many rather than inspire. It has pressured us to adopt a narrow-minded view of what our options are for educating the 21st-century student. It will enhance the economic inequality. It may lead to civil unrest. It is our responsibility to change the rhetoric and return our focus to the student. Thus, as we work to remedy the systematic challenges in higher education in the long-term, we must also work to make education an inspirational experience.
Inspiration is powerful. It is transformative. Only when we inspire our students can we say that we have satisfied our noble calling as educators. While preparing for today’s talk, I came across an article, “What Are You Going to Do to Inspire Students?” “Learning is the iterative and personal act of becoming a human being through painful, joyful, and complex personal growth,” it notes. “A literal awakening that happens in your classroom because of your teaching. ….”
Let us never lose sight of our goal of preparing students for success in a world not yet imagined. Preparing them to be relevant and irreplaceable by robots and machines. We have work to do, but I am confident that we are up to the challenge. We would not be in this business otherwise. As I often say, let us go forth and conquer.
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 Selzer, R. (2017, October 25). Tuition and fees still rising faster than aid, College Board report shows. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com.
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 Lederman, D. (2017, October 24). Western accrediting agency picks unconventional new leader. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com.
 Lecklider, A.S. (2017, September 10). The real victims of anti-intellectualism. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com.
 Selingo, J. (2016). There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know about Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow. New York City, NY: HarperCollins.
 Lewis, P. (2013). Asia invests in liberal arts. Harvard International Review, 36-39.
 Bergmeister, F.X. (2017, April 11). Congratulations, graduate! You have 9- percent more learning to do! FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Retrieved from https://leb.fbi.gov.
 Heick, T. (2014). What are you going to do to inspire students? TeachThought. Retrieved from https://www.teachthought.com.