In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Why Skills Training Can’t Replace Higher Education,” Dr. George Kuh posits that “much of the current media-reported posturing by policy makers and pundits about the failure of U.S. colleges and universities to adequately prepare people for the 21st-century workplace is either ill-informed or misguided.” Dr. Kuh, chancellor’s professor emeritus of higher education at Indiana University, describes today’s media narrative as one focused on the need for vocational skills versus “useless liberal arts programs.” Multiple badges and certificates will be issued to indicate proficiency in certain skills and in the future, a trusted entity will “rack and stack” a combination of them to issue the equivalent of a college degree. He acknowledges that “short-term vocational skills-based programs are critically important and well-suited for many.” However, he also questions why this should be the desired policy for addressing the needs of the 21st-century workplace.
Dr. Kuh notes that “workplaces, societal institutions, and the world order are only going to get more complicated and challenging to navigate and manage, increasing the need for people with accumulated wisdom, interpersonal and practical competence, and more than a splash of critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and altruism.” He also notes that there are “no short cuts” to enabling people to deepen learning, develop resilience, and convert information into action. Shortening education in order to bolster productivity is shortsighted for many reasons, and he expects that many learners from traditionally underrepresented groups will likely gravitate toward these shorter and less expensive training programs at the risk of delaying or denying themselves a foundational baccalaureate degree. He calls on business leaders to speak about what the country needs from our postsecondary system and for a re-balancing to occur based on their experience leading their corporations through this era of rapid, technology-driven change.
As one familiar with Dr. Kuh’s research on the many ways to improve student learning, student engagement, and student success, I applaud his observations that shortcutting the learning that occurs while taking multi-disciplinary undergraduate courses is not the way to build a nation of individuals capable of directing their career and their role in society through critical thinking. However, one reason for the media’s focus on these short-term vocational skills is that higher education has not yet embraced using technology to improve learning the way business has. The amount of free information available to learners through the Internet is practically unlimited today versus 30 or 40 years ago. Sure, many people need the help of others to guide their journey through a well-designed learning experience, but it need not cost $200,000 nor take four to six years.
Like Dr. Kuh, I am unaware of any single institution that has stacked a number of vocational certificates to stitch together the equivalent of a degree, but it will happen one day. Buried in the middle of the piece is his recommendation that we need discourse about what the country needs from our postsecondary system and that we should collaborate with business leaders and educational researchers to re-balance and ground the system. By all indications, the use of artificial intelligence and technology is going to continue to replace expensive jobs. New jobs will be created, but will those offset those lost in terms of numbers and annual compensation?
We need more Americans to receive the equivalent of a college degree. And we need quality options at a lower cost to them and our government. I look forward to continuing to work toward that goal.