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Friday, November 18, 2022

Higher education for all?

I discuss a recent editorial in Science that advocates expanding university education in order to prepare students for jobs.

I believe that the primary goal of a university education is to teach students how to think (critical thinking). This goal is usually achieved within the context of an in-depth study in a particular field such as history, English literature, geology, or biochemistry. The best way of achieving that goal is called student-centered learning. It involves, among other things, classes that focus on discussion and debate under the guidance of an experienced teacher.

Universities and colleges also have job preparation programs such as business management, medicine, computer technology, and, to a lesser extent, engineering. These programs may, or may not, teach critical thinking (usually not).

About 85% of students who enter high school will graduate. About 63% of high school graduates go to college or university. The current college graduation rate is 65% (within six years). What this means is that for every 100 students that begin high school roughly 35 will graduate from college.

Now let's look at an editorial written by Marcia McNutt, President of the United States National Academy of Sciences. The editorial appears in the Nov. 11 issue of Science [Higher education for all]. She begins by emphasizing the importance of a college degree in terms of new jobs and the wealth of nations.

Currently, 75% of new jobs require a college degree. Yet in the US and Europe, only 40% of young adults attend a 2-year or 4-year college—a percentage that has either not budged or only modestly risen in more than two decades— despite a college education being one of the proven ways to lift the socioeconomic status of underprivileged populations and boost the wealth of nations.

There's no question that well-educated graduates will contribute to society in many ways but there is a question about what "well-educated" really means. Is it teaching specific jobs skills or is it teaching students how to think? I vote for teaching critical thinking and not for job training. I think that creating productive citizens who can fill a variety of different jobs is a side-benefit of preparing them to cope with a complex society that requires critical thinking. I don't think my view is exactly the same as Marcia McNutt's because she emphasizes training as a main goal of college education.

Universities, without building additional facilities, could expand universal and life-long access to higher education by promoting more courses online and at satellite community-college campuses.

Statements like that raise two issues that don't get enough attention. The first one concerns the number of students who should graduate from college in an ideal world. What is that number and at what stage should it be enhanced? Should here be more high school graduates going to college? If so, does that require lowering the bar for admission or is the cost of college the main impediment? Is there a higher percentage of students entering college in countries with free, or very low, tuition? Should there be more students graduating? If so, one easy way to do that is to make university courses easier. Is that what we want?

The question that's never asked is what percentage of the population is smart enough to get a college degree? Is it much higher than 40%?

The second issue concerns the quality of education. The model that I suggested above is not consistent with online courses and there's a substantial number of papers in the pedagogical literature showing the student centered education doesn't work very well online. Does that mean that we should adopt a different way of teaching in order to make college education more accessible? If so, at what cost?

McNutt gives us an example of the kind of change she envisages.

At Colorado College, students complete a lab science course in only 4 weeks, attending lectures in the morning and labs in the afternoon. This success suggests that US universities could offer 2-week short courses that include concentrated, hands-on learning and teamwork in the lab and the field for students who already mastered the basics through online lectures. Such an approach is more common in European institutions of higher education and would allow even those with full-time employment elsewhere to advance their skills during vacations or employer-supported sabbaticals for the purpose of improving the skills of the workforce. Opportunities abound for partnerships with industry for life-long learning. The availability of science training in this format could also be a boon for teachers seeking to fill gaps in their science understanding.

This is clearly a form of college education that focuses on job skills and even goes as far as suggesting that industry could be a "partner" in education. (As an aside, it's interesting that government employers, schools, and nonprofits are never asked to be partners in education even though they hire a substantial number of college graduates.)

Do you agree that the USA should be expanding the number of students who graduate from college and do you agree that the goal is to give them the skills needed to get a job?


Jonathan Badger said...

The same arguments of what percentage of the population can benefit from university education were applied to high school education in the 19th and early 20th century when many people left school after the sixth or eighth grade when they had learned how to read and do basic mathematics. While this made sense in an era when the majority of people lived in an an agrarian society, as the country urbanized and industrialized this wasn't enough and high school became the minimum. And as society has become more technologically advanced even this isn't enough for most jobs and university has become required for all but the most menial jobs. While it is nice to talk about the purpose of education is to develop "critical thinking" and other lofty goals, most people don't have the luxury of education for education's sake because they actually need a job in the end. Plus the funny thing about "critical thinking" is that every field thinks their field is better at that than other fields. Perhaps one needs to use critical thinking about the concept of critical thinking itself because different fields seem to disagree on what this nebulous concept exactly is.

Larry Moran said...

@Jonathan Badger

Please give me your estimate of the percentage of the population that should be given a college/university degree.

Are you saying that just because employers are demanding unnecessary university degrees we should respond by passing more students in our courses?

Lucas Harris said...

I too am concerned that too many young people are being funneled into four-year universities to earn degrees that they don't need and don't want, and may simply not be intellectually ready for this level of education. There is no reason for warehouse or factory jobs to need a bachelor's degree. The result is frustrated young people saddled with extensive debt (at least here in the US), and universities full of students that don't want to be there and don't contribute to the intellectual culture of the school. The instructors get to have the choice of either letting the students flunk out (at which time the students still owe a lot in loans, without a degree) or lower their standards to the point where the degrees no longer mean anything.

What would be useful is if more resources were put into strengthening community colleges, trade schools, and continuing education. There are still many well-paying high-demand jobs that require post-secondary education, but for which a four-year degree is inappropriate. Associates' and certificate programs, and even apprenticeships, are excellent fits for these jobs, and allow students to start their careers much faster than spending four (or five, or six, or seven…) years at a university.

Jonathan Badger said...

I think you would first have to show that the requirements of university degrees are unnecessary. The alternative, which I think is more likely, is that jobs simply are more complicated than they were in the past and require skills unable to be taught in high school.