Septem-artes-liberales_Herrad-von-Landsberg_Hortus-deliciarum_1180But, of course, the latest poll doesn’t tell us how to get decision makers within the higher ed industry to listen to these polls that tell us what we already knew.

The poll of which I speak is “Innovation Imperative: Enhancing Higher Education Outcomes,” which polled the general public as well as employers about a range of subjects important to higher education today. There was actually a great deal of ambivalence about a number of subjects (such as online learning and MOOCs), but there was very little ambivalence at all about what matters most in an education, especially to employers: communication skills (writing and speaking), critical thinking skills, and problem solving skills are more important in a college education than job-related knowledge:

In fact, nearly two-thirds of adults and three-quarters of employers agreed with the following statement: ‘Being well-rounded with a range of abilities is more important than having industry expertise because job-specific skills can be learned at work.’

The survey results, which were described in the presentation ‘Innovation Imperative: Enhancing Higher Education Outcomes,’ support the conclusions of a poll of employers that the Association of American Colleges and Universities released earlier this year. That poll found broad support for the idea that students should learn to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems, or what the association described as ‘a 21st-century liberal education.’

Let me put it another way: businesses won’t take your business or vocational training seriously if you can’t read well, can’t speak or write coherently, can’t think for yourself, and can’t solve your own problems, much less problems faced by businesses regularly. Businesses do not feel, generally, that they can teach graduates how to read or write or how to do math, and more importantly, they do not feel that they should have to do so, but they do feel that they can teach their employees their own business. In short, your degree won’t be taken more seriously than your foundational skills. It doesn’t matter how many or what kind of upper division courses that you’ve taken if you aren’t competent in the basics.

These same results come up again and again, in survey after survey. Here are just two others:

It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success” (April 2013)

Writing: A Ticket to Work…Or a Ticket Out” (Sept. 2004)

How colleges and universities should respond:

1. Colleges need to reinvest in the general education curriculum. That means putting highly qualified and well-supported professors in freshmen level classes. No, MOOCs are generally not a good idea for freshmen classes, and especially not for remedial courses, as recent experiments at San Jose State University and elsewhere have demonstrated:

In July, San Jose State University suspended its experiment with offering MOOCs for credit after only half of credit-seeking students who took the online courses passed, compared to three-quarters of those who took the traditional versions. In one of the three pilot classes, which were offered during the spring, fewer than 30 percent of the online students passed.

2. Colleges need to emphasize writing in upper division courses, even in quantitative courses. Ideally, at least two to three out of four upper division courses taken in any given semester should be writing intensive. In the best schools, all classes have writing requirements, even math classes.

3. Upper division courses need to emphasize analysis and thesis development.  Knowing how to get the right answer isn’t enough. Thinking about what that answer means is more important. That’s why many of the best math instructors assign writing.

4. The value of a liberal arts education needs to be revisited. Remember that the original liberal arts were considered the skills that a free person or a citizen needed to know to take an active part in civic life. These consisted of the trivium: grammar, rhetoric, and logic; and the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These subjects represent exactly the skills that employers are looking for: oral and written communication (grammar and rhetoric), critical thinking (logic), math or quantitative reasoning (arithmetic and geometry), creativity and the fine arts (music), and physical sciences (astronomy). These subjects happen to make up most of the core curriculum at most schools.

The best education might then be a liberal arts degree supplemented by business or other vocationally-focused classes (a minor), rather than our current model, which is using a badly undersupported general education curriculum to serve upper division courses that tend to lack rigor unless they are in the humanities or sciences. We already know that students aren’t developing as they should in college:

  • 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college.
  • 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college.
  • Students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains.

We keep hearing the same thing over and over again. It’s time we did something about it. Most importantly, it’s time we did the right thing about it.