Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Time to Rethink Higher Ed for the 21st Century?

So here are some possibly inconvenient facts for those who like to equate education success with attending a four year college. According to New York Times reports

* “Of the 30 jobs projected to grow at the fastest rate over the next decade in the United States, only seven typically require a bachelor’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”
* “Among the top 10 growing job categories, two require college degrees: accounting (a bachelor’s) and postsecondary teachers (a doctorate). But this growth is expected to be dwarfed by the need for registered nurses, home health aides, customer service representatives and store clerks. None of those jobs require a bachelor’s degree.”
* Of those who passed the German Abitur, the key final high school test allowing allows “some Germans to attend college for almost no tuition, 40 percent chose to go into apprenticeships in trades, accounting, sales management, and computers.
* “Students who graduated from college in 2008 with loans carried an average debt.” of $23,200 — an increase of nearly 25 percent, or $4,550, when compared with those who graduated just four years earlier”.
* An estimated “40% of college students will leave higher education without getting a degree, with 75% percent of these students leaving within their first two years of college. Freshman class attrition rates are typically greater than any other academic year and are commonly as high as 20-30%”

Something seems clearly wrong with this picture. Too many students find their way into colleges either unprepared or unmotivated for college work and because of the pressure (usually exerted by families and school counselors) find themselves in debt and cast as failures in the early twenties without anything to show for their efforts.

We need a real debate about the type of higher education that is right for the 21st century-one that looks realistically at alternatives to four year degree programs that are not well aligned with the nation’s job market. Some examples of the dysfunction are provided in the New York Times article by Professor Richard Vedder.

“It is true that we need more nanosurgeons than we did 10 to 15 years ago,” said Professor Vedder, founder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a research nonprofit in Washington. “But the numbers are still relatively small compared to the numbers of nurses’ aides we’re going to need. We will need hundreds of thousands of them over the next decade.”

Some of the alternatives mentioned in the New York Times article include : “short-term vocational and career training, through expanded high school programs and corporate apprenticeships.” Others must include some on-line learning and work experience as well as university and community colleges that could design their programs to include a better balance between work experience, project based learning and mentoring opportunities organized by the colleges themselves.

20th century education was based around the notion that there were some clear credentials that once obtained would reflect the knowledge and skills necessary to be competent in the society for a lifetime. The nature and shape of 21st century realities require a starkly different approach—in the new global economy in which rapid changes in technology lead to as many as five or more career changes in a life time means—students today will be continuously learning and so that intensive investment into four years of one’s early life may not be as valuable as extending and increasing that investment over the course of a lifetime. Higher education needs to catch the same 21st century bus that schools need to jump on if they are going to successfully adapt themselves to changing realities.

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