By Steven Ma
Should colleges and universities be responsible for making students employment-ready? Peter McPherson, over at Inside Higher Ed, says yes. However, Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan University (a top-notch liberal arts college), cautiously agrees. Over at the Washington Post, Jeffrey Selingo sheds light on the perspective of Roth, a champion of the liberal arts as majors (i.e. French Literature) who “believes universities like his, and higher education in general, can do better at preparing students for the job market without abandoning their traditional role to provide a broad education. Like other liberal arts colleges, Wesleyan is investing more in its career services.” Though modifying their curriculum to teach liberal arts majors teamwork and project management skills that can be translated to the workplace, liberal arts colleges view higher education as primarily a time of intellectual exploration, not vocational training.
My personal belief on this matter straddles the middle ground between two goals. Undergraduate education should inspire students to develop their minds through intellectual pursuits while also teaching students the skills to learn on their own. With the amount of knowledge readily available at our fingertips (i.e. Google, Wikipedia, WikiHow, etc.), “hard knowledge” learned in school is going to be less important for the majority of people, especially with the advent of Artificial Intelligence. So, it becomes ever more critical for students to learn “how to learn,” to be inspired and motivated towards goals, and to know how to foster their own creativity. After all, no one can beat Alpha Go in analytical thinking and calculations, but human elements like motivation, inspiration, creativity, and the solving of complicated subjective issues cannot be programmed into a machine. Jack Ma, who is the billionaire Founder of Alibaba (and who has now added “Kung Fu Movie Star” to his resume), gives the same exhortation about needed changes to education in light of the growing power of computers.
Every sector of society needs leaders, even among the scholarly professions. On the debate of whether college students should be employment-ready, the public seems to agree with McPherson more than Roth. In 2011, the Pew Research Center did a survey entitled “The Purpose of College Education.” They found that “Just under half of the public (47%) says the main purpose of a college education is to teach work-related skills and knowledge. Another 39%, however, says that college is an opportunity for students to grow personally and intellectually.” Only 12% of participants thought that college should teach both.
The University of California (UC) system values an attribute among its applicants called “Leadership in the Home.” This type of leadership applies to students who had to work part-time to support their families, or who had to take on adult roles in the family because of an incapacitated family member. Contrary to putting these students at a disadvantage because they take time away from extracurricular activities, the UC system views these responsibilities as the very essence of leadership. Having to pick up a younger sibling every day after school and make sure they do homework, and then having to cook dinner for everyone cultivates sacrifice, responsibility, and commitment. No one can become “a great leader” without these virtues.
A common theme among great leaders is that they’ve had to learn responsibility early on in life. One of the best ways to develop leadership potential is to work a part-time job as a high school student, even if you don’t need the money. The skills you learn from working as a high school student will benefit you in college and in the workplace.
1. Being Accountable Cultivates Responsibility and Maturity.
At home, teenagers may get away with forgetting to do chores or playing too much video games, but the workplace has no problem disciplining an employee. Unlike parents, the workplace gives several warnings and then removes you if you don’t comply. Interning in a professional setting or working part-time teaches students things that school and home cannot. Forgetting to brush your teeth only affects you, your family, and close friends, but forgetting to relay an important message at work can have costly consequences for your employer.
2. Working Teaches Life Skills That Classrooms Cannot.
High school and college are often bubbles that students don’t realize exists until they enter the work world. Deadlines in the work place can be dire consequences compared to turning in a paper late and getting a C. School allows students to re-take classes and to drop classes without repercussion, but work is not like this. Coworkers, managers, and the financial stability of the company can depend on you meeting a deadline the first time. Under this kind of pressure, the behavior of coworkers and managers may be not be as cordial as those of classmates and instructors. Working, paid or unpaid, teaches students that the vast majority of their lives will not be like what they experience in school.
3. Leadership Potential Depends on Personal Discipline and Experience.
Regardless of whether someone wants to be a leader, at some point in their careers they will encounter opportunities in which they will have to take the lead. This can occur in the workplace, during leisure activities, and in the home. As with knowing how to watch Olympic skiing, this doesn’t mean that you are a great skier. Even if you know what to do when it comes to taking the lead, this doesn’t mean that you have the courage or experience to actually do it. Leaders can lead because they are used to taking risks, failing, recovering, and being misunderstood. It comes with practice.
According to the Multi-Generational Job Search Study carried out by Millennial Branding in 2014, in partnership with Beyond.com, “The top three skills hiring managers are looking for are: a positive attitude (84%), communication skills (83%) and teamwork skills (74%).” However, the same report revealed a problem among recent college grads: “The biggest challenges facing hiring managers seem to be how the job seeker presents themselves – 36% of HR Pros reported that candidates are ‘unprepared’ and 33% said they have a ‘bad attitude’ when interviewing.” With the crisis of student loan debt rising rapidly, Judith Scott-Clayton of the Brookings Institute calculates that among the students who entered college in 2004, 40% of them will default on their students loans by 2023. Rising college tuition and trouble repaying loans are a convincing argument that colleges should prepare students for what comes after graduation.
But must we see this debate as an “either-or” option? Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy at NYU, tells his story at the New York Times Magazine. Appiah recognizes that the tension between practical utility vs. intellectual utopia will not be easily resolved, but he maintains that college is the place where these two worlds are allowed to clash. He masterfully describes two students crossing each other’s path, one a liberal arts major questioning the integrity of well-meaning social justice movements, the other a chemistry major puzzling over the validity of quantum theories, but both oblivious to each other as if they attended completely different schools. As someone who studied math and physics in college, but who also understands the importance of cross-cultural competence in entrepreneurship and project management, my thoughts resonate with Appiah’s “collision course synergy” model of the college experience. Though this model is not clean and neat in terms of what results it currently produces, it can work beautifully when a student learns to think deeply about life’s questions while also graduating with skills that are recognizable to a hiring manager.
Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “What is The Point of College?” New York Times Magazine. September 8, 2016.
Horowitz, Julia. “Jack Ma: We need to stop training our kids for manufacturing jobs.” CNN Tech. September 20, 2017.
McPherson, Peter. “The False Choice Between Education and Employment Readiness.” Inside Higher Ed. February 7, 2018.
Millennial Branding. “The Multi-Generational Job Search Study 2014.” May 20, 2014.
Scott-Clayton, Judith. “The Looming Student Loan Default Crisis is Worse Than We Thought.” Brookings Institute. January 11, 2018.
Selingo, Jeffrey. “What’s the purpose of college: A job or an education?” The Washington Post. February 2, 2015.
Pew Research Center. “Purpose of College Education.” June 2, 2011.