Friday, July 31, 2009

What Kinds of Graduates are Needed for the Post-Recession, Global Economy?

At the Annual Meeting of the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), many presenters and a considerable amount of hallway chatter was directed at the question, “What kinds of educations and competences do graduates need to thrive in the re-imagined, highly competitive, global economy that will emerge as we lift out of the current recession?”

No surprisingly, the Answers to this Question Are Multi-Faceted. First, it is clear that thoughtful learners at all levels and in all settings need to align their capacities with the needs of the workforce. Moreover, learners need to be far more reflective about how they can truly demonstrate the sorts of competences that employers covet. We believe learners and families will get even more serious about these issues over the next few years.

Second, alignment with he needs of the economy can have vastly different meanings for an entry-level green career aspirant, an engineering graduate from a large state university, a liberal arts graduate from a small, well regarded private institution, or a masters degree graduate from an on-line, for-profit provider. Different people, different stages in development and careers, different industries, different aspirations.

Third, early attention to aligning with workforce needs need not translate into narrowing of options and systematically lowering of expectations for some groups. Career tracks should not become impermeable silos. One of the great strengths of American higher education has been our capacity for learners to have second and third chances at getting their act together (a weakness being that too many need second and third chances). At SCUP, Jonathon Kozol spoke eloquently of the need for minority students to be encouraged in their aspirations for a horizon-expanding liberal arts education, for example.

When we use the term “demonstrated competence” we do not mean an exhaustive punch list of micro-competencies, but a fully integrated set of skills and capabilities that enable individuals to function with confidence, flexibility and a voracious capacity for perpetual learning.

Competences in the Global World of Shared Sociability. In his breakthrough book, The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman outlines what learners need to know to thrive in the emerging world of global, shared sociability. In “Education for Exponential Times,” Diana Oblinger offers some fresh views that extend Friedman’s thesis. A consolidated description of the competences of the new model graduate contains:

• A foundation of curiosity, passion, flexibility, self-motivation, and psychological flexibility;

• A new portfolio of roles: collaborators and orchestrators, synthesizers, explainers, leveragers, adapters, “green” people, passionate personalizers, and localizers;

• Individuals will need to demonstrate their capacity to perpetually incorporate new knowledge - disciplinary knowledge will be relatively less important; and

• The capacity to work in highly diverse, transnational teams and leverage personal knowledge networks will be paramount.

Increasing international experiences are a key ingredient in this model; both institutions and individuals are responding aggressively to New Age variations on study abroad, joint degree, collaborative research, and internship programs that span international borders.

Double Down on the Liberal Arts and Sciences – But With a Difference. What does this mean for liberal arts and sciences graduates? And for institutions whose “brand” depends on the public perception that liberal arts and sciences degrees and experiences provide an appealing value proposition - onew that is worth a healthy price premium, in many cases? Several thoughts emerge:

• Liberal arts and sciences majors should be highly reflective about aligning their broadly articulated competences with the Friedman/Oblinger view of the proven capacities necessary for what the Chinese call “golden future jobs?” They should also be ,aggressive in being able to demonstrate their competences and present a contextualized, confident, rich portfolio of achievement and ability.

• Institutions depending on the liberal arts and sciences for their brand should continuously question whether their programs and experiences are as developmentally rigorous and broad as they claim. Do they includes math and sciences as well as the liberal arts? Do they include capastone and synthesizing experiences? They should also affirm and assure that they provide the sorts of developmental experiences that prepare graduates to thrive in a Flat, Global, Shared Sociability, and Exponential Education World.

So institutions that believe in the strong value proposition of their liberal arts and sciences offerings should “double down” on their bet – advocating the increasing potential value of a broad liberal arts and sciences preparation. But with a critical difference: Affirming a strong emphasis on the Friedman/Oblinger-type competences that will be critical to thriving in the post-recession, global economy. And assuring that the reality of the experiences measure up to the promise.

Frankly, proponents of the liberal arts and sciences cannot be complacent over the next few years, even if they have a compelling story to tell. As students and parents rethink the value propositions of prospective institutions and career tracks, they will want to see proof that a well grounded liberal arts and sciences degree and accompanying experiences actually prepares graduates for “golden future” careers. And that employers recognize this value proposition.

In future blogs we shall describe successful institutional efforts to promote a globalized liberal arts and sciences education.

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