Young people and their parents are rightly nervous these days about the economy. Many wonder whether their investment in a college education will pay off.
Such worries are overblown. College graduates continue to do far better, even in this difficult economy, than those who never go to college. The new global economy, in fact, requires far more people to have much higher levels of education than ever before.
Given the current economic angst, students and their parents tend to focus too narrowly on which college major will result in the best first-job chances for employment and decent wages. However, employers themselves discourage this kind of short-term thinking. With innovation driving rapid change in every area of the economy, employers want far more from graduates than knowledge related to a specific job or even a specific major. When they size up their new employees, they are looking for evidence that these graduates will help them solve new problems and drive work in new and more productive directions.
My advice to students is to focus less on the choice of a major and more on developing the broad knowledge and cross-cutting skills that will fuel success in a changing workplace and an era of global interdependence, rapid innovation and cross-cultural interactions. The best college programs can set students up for future success by blending study in the arts and sciences with real-world experience and practical problem-solving.
Why is this more blended, integrated design for liberal learning the best approach?
Even a cursory reading of any newspaper confirms that this is a global century and a global economy. So, wherever a student enrolls and whatever his or her major, colleges need to help build "global intelligence" and a broad array of skills and knowledge in all students. Every student needs to study science and technology. Every student needs to develop quantitative skills. Every student needs to be able to solve complex problems collaboratively with people from a wide array of backgrounds. And all students need a solid grounding in the liberal arts and sciences to understand the world in which they are living and to make good and ethically sound choices. That is the message I delivered Tuesday to an audience of faculty and students at the University of Baltimore, a member of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which I lead.
The good news for Baltimore citizens is that at the University of Baltimore and at many other colleges and universities in the region, faculty members are busy developing integrated, innovative college programs designed to graduate liberally educated professionals. The last thing students need is a narrowly tailored education that may set them up for a first job, but not with the adaptive and integrative capacities to continue learning over time and to move from one job to the next as the global economy twists and turns.
Baltimoreans should also be comforted by another development in college learning at local institutions (and at many others around the country). While it is completely understandable for today's students and their parents to focus on how college will set them up for professional success, the future of our democracy also depends on how well we are educating future citizens. At the University of Baltimore, for example, students and faculty work with community partners to document local history, organize comprehensive interventions to reduce school truancy, conduct labor force analyses and economic evaluations, help design new products for small businesses, study the effects of urban growth on local ecosystems, and engage in creative writing and publishing projects with elementary school children. These activities, tied to students' learning in law, business, public affairs, and arts and sciences, strengthen Baltimore communities and provide practical, real-world experience that can give students an edge in the job market.
Historically, the great strength of American higher education has been a dual focus on providing students with skills and knowledge that both prepare them for success in the workplace and ensure they become informed and engaged citizens. Many of the very same educational approaches that help students become successful workplace problem-solvers and innovators also are getting them involved in their communities and developing their arts of active citizenship. These kinds of programs at the University of Baltimore and elsewhere will, indeed, make students' investments of time and money in college well worth the cost.
Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. She spoke at the University of Baltimore on Tuesday to kick off its symposium on the future of liberal arts and sciences at UB, a visioning process for its Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.