Karen Hitchcock: Is College-Completion Enough?

Jan 22, 2015

In the January 20th, 2015 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education there was an unfortunate – but quite revealing – juxtaposition of two major articles. The first, by Kelly Field, was entitled, “6 Years in and 6 to Go, Only Modest Progress on Obama’s College-Completion Goal;” the second, by Casey Fabris, “College Students Think They’re Ready for the Work Force. Employers Aren’t so Sure.”

The major “take home” message in the article on college-completion rates was that our progress toward President Obama’s goal of ranking number one in the world by 2020 has been slow, and many feel this “reach” goal is not attainable. Ranked 12th six years ago, six years into this initiative we are only tied for 11th, and many of our competitors,such as number one South Korea, continue to increase their college-completion rates.

Like similar goals set by the Lumina Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, President Obama’s goal to lead the world in college-completion speaks volumes to the value placed on postsecondary education as the key route to strengthening the middle class and invigorating our economy. Announced early in his presidency, President Obama stated, “In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity, it is a prerequisite. We know that countries that outteach us today will outcompete us tomorrow.”

Indeed, as an educator, I heartily applaud the goal of increasing the educational attainment of our citizens. However, as stated in the article, “critics of the President’s goal say there’s little evidence that raising the nation’s college-completion rate will automatically make the country more competitive or prosperous.” And this leads me to the second article in the January 20th, 2015 issue of The Chronicle. The major premise of this article is that, in the eyes of many employers, college-completion, in and of itself, does not necessarily imply readiness for work. In a report just released by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, employers and about-to-graduate students differed greatly in their perceptions regarding work readiness.

By and large, students felt qualified in such areas as written and oral communications, critical and analytical thinking and applying knowledge and skills to real world problems, whereas employers rated graduates much lower in these same areas. Like many recent studies, employers report a “skills gap” greater than in many other countries. In the article, Anthony P. Carnevale, Director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, states that “the problem is that colleges don’t know how to produce the skills – like problem solving and analytical thinking - that employers expect recent college graduates to possess.”

Indeed, while many students are seeking out opportunities for applied learning – for the kinds of experiences which could enable them to hone their problem-solving skills, with some notable exceptions, most colleges and universities have yet to embrace such learning experiences as central to the educational process.  And, yet, I feel strongly that such active, engaged approaches to learning not only help develop the skills sought after by potential employers, but also bring new and stimulating insights to the core subject matter.

So, we have a dilemma. Even as we are being exhorted to set college-completion as a national goal in order, it is said, to ensure our global economic competitiveness, we repeatedly hear that our nation’s colleges and universities are not yet able to prepare graduates with the very skills required to meet the demands of today’s workplace. Have we put the cart before the horse? While we, of course, should continue to find ways to ensure college-completion for larger numbers of students, we must also recognize that enhancing college-completion rates will be an effective economic development strategy only to the extent that the college experience prepares our students to meet the demands of an ever more complex and challenging work environment. Simply producing increased numbers of college graduates who continue to lack the skills our nation’s employers require will not address the basic purpose of the President’s college-completion initiative – that is, to enhance our economic competitiveness. But, if joined with true educational reform at our colleges and universities, reforms which embrace new pedagogies and innovative learning experiences which prepare our graduates for the workplace, enhancing college-completion rates could well prove to be a powerful force for change in our country.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served  on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.


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