A Manifesto for 21st Century Higher Education

Looking over alum surveys for my school, thinking about what the future of higher education is, and am finding that both undergraduate (UG) and graduate (G) alums seem to want the same types of knowledges and skills, just in more and more specific contexts that aid their careers.

I did a quick and dirty content analysis of the open-ended responses about what knowledges and skills the alums learned that they found to be useful in their careers. None of this is official, but I did notice some interesting trends to help us think through #21stCenturyHigherEd.

UG alums found specific computer programs useful, but that suggests if they have that experience before college, it doesn’t help college recruitment — and likely more well-off K-12 programs have already taught these programs. So what else can college offer?

Well, their other responses provide suggestions.

Both UG and G alums prize experiential learning, whether thru practical application within their courses or some sort of in the field training. Again, K-12 can offer this, but usually at a lower level. College, UG-G, need to strengthen this aspect thru more community relations.

Communication skills were also repeatedly mentioned by both UG and G alums; this includes teamwork, collaboration, presentations, writing, networking, leadership, and activism. Higher Ed needs to provide a core foundation that programs contextualize to specify skill application.

Many UG and G also indicated the importance of analytical, critical, and creative forms of thinking, including skills like ethics, problem-solving, adaptability and assessment are all needed. As AI continues to advance, higher education needs to concentrate on these expanding skills.

Interestingly, the ability to form and maintain relationships also appears to be important. Beyond just improved communication literacy, empathic literacy and cultural competency were highlighted. Experiential learning can help here, but only if based on core instruction.

Finally, organization skills appear important, whether the organization is with people, information, time or money: multi-tasking, time management, financial literacy, and information literacy all received attention. College’s freedom from parents means many need these adulting skills.

What could this mean for the future of higher education?

That the degree matters less than the experience.

But technical training has been the purview of 2-year institutions. What should 4-year institutions be doing for the UG learning experience?

Perhaps the 4-years can be using that extra time to better structure programs that provide all students with a core that covers all these highlighted knowledges and skills that the student can then build upon through contextualization within narrower disciplines.

Which, yeah, that’s the liberal arts and sciences (LAS) approach to higher education, right?

Well, to a degree.

The problem with this traditional LAS approach is the lack of integration for experiential learning.

The academic disciplines of 4-year institutions have traditionally focused on developing citizens and scholars, and not tradespeople or professionals. The elitism of the Ivory Tower had perpetuated power inequalities around the world.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with developing citizens and scholars: for our civilization to continue progressing towards freedom, equality, and justice, we need the knowledges and skills that accompany being citizens and scholars — knowledges and skills reported here.

But we need those citizens and scholars mindsets to be melded and intertwined with tradespeople and professionals mindsets. We cannot have power inequities due to different knowledge-bases and skill sets if we want to survive the 21st century.

And, no, it doesn’t mean everyone has to think the same — but we all at least have to have the same exposure to at least the basic social literacies, such as communication and empathy, so that we can work together not despite but because of our differences.

So what do I think 4-year institutions need to do? Stop focusing on discipline-based degrees as the foundation for any program, where I define “program” as any process wherein students pay for an education that results in some form of deliverable (from endorsement to degree).

Instead, create programs that operate as theoretical and experiential training for a matrix of related careers while providing a foundation of important knowledges and skills that melds the citizen-scholar with the trades-professional mindsets.

Call the deliverable, the end result of that program, whatever you want. But we need to tear into our current programs, deconstruct and reconstruct them, if we ever want to create a more just and humane world.

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