What Colleges Aren’t Teaching

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Higher education institutions in this country are still focused on teaching almost the same way as they first started over a hundred years ago. Back then, education meant memorizing information and the lecture method made sense, because that was the only way for teachers and professors to disseminate this knowledge to their students. And although primary and secondary schools have started to shift toward more project-based and mastery-based education, there hasn’t been much change in higher education. For this reason, college graduates are investing a lot of time and money into their education and coming away with antiquated results that leave some unprepared for entering the workforce.

It’s because in this day and age, education isn’t so much about memorizing specific information, such as the periodic table of elements, or even developing hard skills, like how to cite in MLA format. Thanks to technology, students no longer need to waste time committing these concepts to memory, because anyone can look up a definition or how-to video on practically any subject imaginable. But colleges still place so much emphasis on this aspect of learning — retaining memorized facts and skills — when instead they should place emphasis on a different set of skills altogether.

The skills I’m referring to are what are known as “soft skills”, which are the universal traits that make humans productive members of any team or organization. Traits such as responsibility, creativity, time management, communication, collaboration, flexibility and problem-solving are traits that can be developed and strengthened much like any knowledge or technical skill. These are becoming more important in this era of automation and artificial intelligence, because these traits are what will set people apart in the global workplace and enable us to continue innovating for the future.

And it’s because of technology that this gap between education and the workplace exists, because jobs are changing faster and faster in order to keep up with new technology but education isn’t keeping up with these changes. What this means is that the biggest change that colleges should prepare their students for is for change itself. Students need to learn how to adapt, learn in a new environment, ask for information, and solve complex problems that they’ve never before encountered.

Just take a look at these statistics that Larry Alton shares in his article titled “Workplace Changes are Accelerating: Why and What Millennials Should Do About it”:

  1. an estimated 88% of manufacturing jobs will be lost due to automation
  2. 43% of Americans now spend at least part of their time working from home
  3. office environments are becoming increasingly more relaxed
  4. technology is connecting offices around world, enabling interaction between people with vastly different backgrounds, languages and cultures.

Higher Education places so much emphasis on earning a degree as the qualifying sign of having an education, but the changing times means many of these degrees quickly become obsolete. It also forces students down narrow career pathways and makes them believe that their options after college are limited by this one piece of paper. Lastly, it requires students to declare a major and stick with it, despite the norm that most students change their minds and discover new passions throughout their higher education career.

Even worse, is that schools often promote degrees based on career trends and fads, such as how currently schools are obsessed with STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math). This emphasis does a disservice to students and society at large by sending the message that certain talents and strengths are valued over others. In reality, employers need more than just engineers and mathematicians.

George Anders, Forbes technology reporter from 2012–2016, spoke with hiring managers about the STEM trend and found that even tech companies admitted that they’re seeking employees from non-tech backgrounds. He says

“Uber was picking up psychology majors to deal with unhappy riders and drivers. Opentable was hiring English majors to bring data to restauranteurs to get them excited about what data could do for their restaurants.”

and he continues,

“I realized that the ability to communicate and get along with people, and understand what’s on other people’s minds, and do full-strength critical thinking — all of these things were valued and appreciated by everyone as important job skills, except the media.”

It’s because liberal arts degrees afforded these graduates transferrable soft skills that they ultimately found work outside of their degrees.

This is why it’s time for higher education to innovate how teaching and learning look, because studying one singular topic for an entire semester no longer yields the same results. Instead, earning a degree should entail demonstrating the ability to learn new topics quickly and to grow and develop in new or challenging subjects.

In a Forbes article, Adi Gaskell notices this trend and remarks,

“While degree-level courses undoubtedly have their place, the rapid pace of change in the workplace is likely to necessitate access to shorter courses that allow for more modular learning that can be completed alongside clear need for those skills in our work.”

Rather than emphasize one singular degree, higher education should emphasize the role that lifelong learning plays in having a successful career. Again, it’s about developing soft skills that will enable someone to continue adapting to the changes of any working environment thereby guaranteeing them a successful career in the future.

“The ability for employees to learn throughout their career will play a growing role in their success, both as individuals and as part of teams.” — Adi Gaskell

That’s why employers are starting to look for these traits in their prospective employees. In fact, LinkedIn’s released their 2019 report on the most sought-after job skills and found that the three most-wanted “soft skills” were creativity, persuasion and collaboration. In addition, 92% of human resources professionals say that soft skills matter as much or more than hard skills.

In regards to these trends, Wendy Hiton-Morrow, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Augustana College in Illinois says,

“As our workforce has become more diversified, there’s been a need to be more adaptable, to be able to change to the environment and change to technology. These skills perhaps have become all the more important for employers.”

Besides the ability to adapt, the most important thing employers look for when hiring recent graduates is actual work experience. Yet shockingly, only a mere 15% of college students are involved in any learning experiences outside of the classroom, such as an internship, volunteering, research or study abroad related to their major. A typical degree is still deeply rooted in theoretical knowledge instead of practical experience. This is yet another reason that colleges aren’t producing graduates who have requisite soft skills and are prepared for a lifelong career of change.

Yet the only thing certain about the future of work is change.

That’s why it’s the role of higher education to produce graduates with not only the ability to adapt, but also with the demonstrated experience to prove it. Still, few colleges and universities focus on necessary soft skill traits and on ensuring their students gain this practical experience as part of any degree. It’s time to re-think the singular degree in favor of a more flexible education model that more closely resembles the ever-changing workplace.

Stories of a former high school teacher, now business consultant. Husband. Travel fanatic. Obsessed coffee drinker. And all-around nerd.

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