With Value in Mind

July 25, 2019

I’ve been fascinated lately by an interesting mash-up of conversations about higher education. For several years now, concerns over college costs, student debt and employability have led to a mentality that reduces college education to job training. In those conversations, the value of a degree is defined by the cost of the education compared to the graduate’s starting salary.

Also in recent years, futurists have been discussing the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on the world of work, and therefore, on what’s needed from the education system. Jobs involving defined sets of rules and routine tasks can easily be replaced by machines or smart systems. In these conversations, the question turns to what students need to learn to be employable for the long term.

Technical and computer skills are the big winners in each of these strands of discourse. Employers want workers whose technical training enables them to be productive day one. We’ve seen the emergence of coding camps and other non-traditional programs that teach those “step-in” technical skills quickly and inexpensively.

After employing these technically-trained workers, though, employers realize they need other skills too, such competencies as problem-solving, creativity, communication skills and the ability to work with others. These are often referred to as “soft skills,” (but I like the more recent label, “power skills”). More specifically, employers who are on the forefront of deploying artificial intelligence realize they need the “human” skills that cannot be replicated by machines. It turns out employers actually need and value employees who can:

  • Figure things out, create, innovate and solve problems;
  • Gather and evaluate information, propose a course of action and inform—perhaps even inspire—others;
  • Care about what they do, overcome obstacles, rebound from setbacks and adapt to new situations;
  • Support others around them, respect the diversity and dignity of everyone, connect to purpose and “do the right thing.”

Whew! All these demands of employers and the impact of new technologies—say nothing of the expectations of prospective students—make it difficult to determine how higher education needs to adapt. Think for a moment about how these varied skills and abilities are developed.

In academic programs, different outcomes demand very different curricula and pedagogies. Training and education are different things. Training involves teaching students (or employees) known sets of knowledge, processes, and/or rules and then expecting no variance in the application of that knowledge. Contrast that with what’s needed by those who are expanding the universe of human knowledge (e.g., finding a cure for cancer). People in those roles become experts at dealing with the unknown. Students need to learn how to learn. And the education required to develop those skills is vastly different from straight-up training programs.

Next, consider how those “soft skills” or “power skills” are developed. They may be included in coursework. More likely, those qualities are best discovered and nurtured through experiences, self-reflection, interaction with others, and discerning a higher power or a higher purpose. So a valuable college experience also should include engagement in student life, leadership opportunities, community service, athletics and religious life programming.

People who work closely with me have heard me say, “We’re not just in the job training business, we’re in the human development business.”

Yes, Grand View graduates get jobs and gain entry into graduate and professional programs. Consistently for the past 20 years, 98 to 100 percent of Grand View graduates have been placed within six months of graduation. But Grand View graduates who have fully engaged in all that we offer also develop those other valued skills, abilities and characteristics—qualities that will help them remain valuable and adaptable as technology changes the nature of work.

Our challenge in the years ahead is to articulate the value of all we do in a manner that connects student learning and experiences to successful outcomes in the workplace and in life. A college degree, in and of itself, no longer communicates that value. As we work harder to articulate that value, it will help us to hear stories like the ones in this issue and the ones you can tell us.

How did your experiences as a student, both curricular and co-curricular, lead to successful outcomes in life? Indeed, we want to hear from you. Your success defines our value.