According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 41 percent of recent college graduates work in jobs not requiring a degree, with unemployment and underemployment highest for liberal arts grads and those in vocation fields like advertising, criminal justice, journalism and marketing.
Can’t we do better?
The answer is yes, but only if we think afresh about our curriculum. Here, we have a lot to learn from higher ed past.
Too often, history is deemed i-r-r-e-l-e-v-a-n-t. But a knowledge of history can also, at times, buck up our courage and imagination.
Let me offer an example.
The defining features of higher education today — distinct disciplines and departments, majors and credit hours — are products of a particular historical era: the late 19th century, when American colleges and universities underwent profound changes in the face of two major societal challenges.
The first challenge was to meet a rapidly evolving industrial economy’s need for formally trained experts in rapidly expanding fields that included business administration, engineering and evidence-based medicine and science-based industry. To meet the need for technical instruction, the college curriculum broadened and faculty became more professional.
Hard to believe, but as late as the 1870s, there were still individual professors who taught everything from classics to engineering. Now, colleges turned to disciplinary specialists.
The second challenge was to create a more structured pathway into adulthood for ambitious or affluent young men.
In the early 19th century, young men’s lives were extraordinarily unpredictable. Youth was a period when a young man moved repeatedly between the natal home and independent living elsewhere, and from one apprenticeship or job to another. There was no clearly defined or well demarcated pathway to advancement and success. Consequently, many young men experienced their 20s and early 30s as a period of intense anxiety and uncertainty.
Increasingly, a redesigned college experience offered a solution to both challenges. During the late 19th century, the modern concept of a career materialized, in which formal training was followed by entry into a profession, which was then succeeded by a sequence of ascending positions within that profession. College became the entryway into professional life.
The effort to smooth the path to a secure adulthood extended to the extracurriculum, as colleges and universities assumed oversight over activities — from competitive athletics to campus publications and clubs — that had previously been organized and run by students themselves. It is not an accident that as youth no longer was a true odyssey of discovery, colleges created alternative rites of passage, which, however demanding, like football, were constrained by adult oversight and adult-defined rules.
Today’s colleges face very different challenges than their late-19th-century counterparts. Indeed, the older conception of a career, in which one devotes a lifetime to a particular professional vocation, has broken down.
That reality imposes an imperative on today’s colleges and universities. Our institutions need to do a better job of preparing students for success in the high-demand knowledge economy, the creative sector, technical and technology industries, and occupations involving advanced analysis and management of data.
To call out these sectors is not to dismiss the importance of the liberal arts or the fields that have attracted the largest numbers of students over the past half century, such as communication, education, finance, hospitality, human resources, marketing and sales, nursing, and social work.
But we must recognize that college students need better employment options than the jobs most of our graduates take. That means preparing many more graduates for the fast-growing jobs in artificial intelligence, computer science, environmental science, information security, machine learning, materials science, multimedia design and production, neuroscience, user interface design, web and application development, and the many areas in the biomedical sciences, like biostatistics, epidemiology, virology and health informatics.
Almost all of these fields require additional education and experience beyond a bachelor’s, but colleges need to lay the foundation that students need.
How can we do that?
Too often, the answer is ludicrous. Teaching all students to code does little to prepare them for the world of work or the new economy (unlike, say, offering training in Excel or project management or technical writing or fluency in a foreign language). Without in any way belittling the societal value of underpaid applied positions like medical coder, massage therapist, paralegal, phlebotomist, ultrasound technician, or health, nutrition or fitness coach, a four-year college degree should open the door to something more.
Here are some strategies:
1. Ensure that more students, especially more diverse students, attain the prerequisites for success in fields that require facility with advanced mathematics and statistics. Diverse fields now require facility with computational and algorithmic thinking, statistics, and the derivation of meaningful patterns in data sets. But only a small minority of our students attain a viable level of competency in these areas.
Currently, if students haven’t mastered calculus in high school or their freshman year, many STEM majors are unattainable. Might it not make sense to offer targeted programs and supplemental instruction sections and boot camps to ensure that larger numbers achieve competency in advanced mathematics?
2. Insert more authentic learning experiences and more making and doing opportunities into major pathways. Many employers in high-demand fields want evidence that a graduate can actually perform a particular job. The answer is to make project-based learning and internships an integral part of the major requirements, so that a student can assemble a portfolio and a competency transcript.
3. Place practicing professionals in the classroom. In computer science, a technologist-in-residence program can introduce timely topics into the curriculum, like agile design, Blockchain, distributed systems and web development. Biomedical science programs might develop partnership arrangements with nearby medical schools and health science centers and biotech companies to introduce majors to the breadth of opportunities within the health professions.
4. Address pipeline issues head-on. To bring more women, African American and Latinx undergraduates into high-demand fields, reach out to students in closely related fields and forge interdisciplinary partnerships.
Let’s again take the example of computer science, where women and undergraduates of color are sorely underrepresented. Many women, African Americans and Latinos/as in biostatistics, emerging media and statistics would benefit from greater engagement in computer science.
The answer: create new entry points into the computer science major and minor, introduce these students to working professionals who can serve as mentors, give them early experience in project building with real-world data sets, and expose these undergrads at early stages of their college careers to programming and data analytics, while underscoring the application of computer science in health care, education and other fields that these students often find more engaging than coding.
Much as late-19th-century colleges and universities recognized that student engagement, a sense of belonging and connection, and alumni loyalty required a vibrant campus life, we too need to reimagine the college experience for a generation that is far less interested than its predecessors in the traditional trappings of student life: football, fraternities and sororities, and homecoming.
Intensifying this challenge are the growing numbers of commuting students who must balance their studies with work and caregiving responsibilities and can spend only limited time on campus.
The contours of a new brand of campus life are already visible in student-organized international food fairs, take-a-professor-to-lunch programs, welcome week activities for new and returning students, pop-up concerts in classroom buildings and dining halls, and co-curricular, student engagement activities that integrate visits to museums and performance venues into academic classes.
In the pandemic’s wake, we need to produce future-proofed graduates who are also automation-proofed and recession-proofed.
If we are to prepare our students for the post-COVID economy, we need to ensure that they acquire certain hard skills, for example, in design, data literacy, project management and research methods, as well as the so-called soft skills of judgment, abstraction, empathy, leadership, critical thinking, entrepreneurialism, emotional intelligence and cross-cultural competence.
The first industrial revolution substituted machine labor for hand labor and water and steam power and eventually fossil fuels and electricity for human and animal power. Today’s economic revolution promises to augment the human mind with artificial intelligence, virtual reality, computer technologies, digitization, advanced data analytics and self-monitoring smart machines.
Ready or not, the time has come for our institutions to discuss how to better prepare students for this brave new world. This is an economic environment that holds out great promise, but also a milieu from which far too many individuals risk being excluded for lack of the proper skill set.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.