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Powering Up The Mind

July/August 2014

By Karla Hignite

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A healthy dose of liberal education can equip students for the multiple careers they will experience during their lifetimes. And employers are looking for skills in critical thinking, clear communication, and collaborative dexterity—learning outcomes beyond the content of a specific discipline.

Preparing students for the current and future workforce includes equipping all students, regardless of discipline, with the skills that will lead them through life. 

The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, is unapologetic about its liberal arts tradition. “After 321 years, we don’t see a need to reframe what we offer students, because we continue to believe that a liberal arts education provides the strongest career preparation possible,” says Provost Michael Halleran. 

Some careers have well-defined tracks. If you’re studying to be an engineer or a nurse, you have a pretty clear course trajectory, notes Halleran. Yet, there are many more careers for which there is no single defined pathway for getting there. “If you survey company CEOs, you will find that they typically have very broad and diverse educational backgrounds,” says Halleran. “The point is, as a liberal arts institution, we don’t prepare students for a career, but for any career.”  

That said, William and Mary does have a much more robust career services function than it did even a decade ago. A bigger push in recent years has helped students translate their academic knowledge, skills, and abilities for the workplace. “We want students to understand that more important than their major are the capacities they acquire in the course of their study,” says Halleran. The college has likewise ramped up its focus on engaged learning—internships and other experiential opportunities both on and off campus. 

Each summer about 400 William and Mary undergraduates assist faculty with research projects. Specially targeted programs like the college’s popular “Business Bootcamp for Arts & Sciences Students” tap alumni to help current students network with recruiters. During the weeklong program, participants work in teams on a case-based curriculum designed to immerse them in key business principles related to strategy, finance, marketing, and communication. 

In fact, it seems the best bet for ensuring student workforce readiness and career success—regardless of degree—is to equip students with the right balance of discipline-specific knowledge and professional know-how. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) report, “Job Outlook for the Class of 2014,” the skills employers are looking for beyond a student’s major and academic performance are abilities to:

These are closely followed by job-related technical knowledge, proficiency with computer software programs, the ability to create and edit written reports, and the ability to influence others. “These softer skills and abilities aren’t something students take a course in, but are acquired throughout a student’s academic experience,” says NACE Executive Director Marilyn Mackes. 

A series of surveys of business and nonprofit leaders conducted by Hart Research Associates for the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) provides additional confirmation that employers give higher priority to students’ cross-cutting skills and experiences than to the content of their choice of major. 

The most recent survey, “It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success,” shows that students’ readiness to contribute to workplace innovation is a priority for 95 percent of employers surveyed. Nearly as many (93 percent) want “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems” and say that these attributes are more important than a candidate’s major. 

Eight in 10 employers agree that all college students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences regardless of their major. And, employers strongly endorse educational practices that involve application of skills, including undergraduate research, internships, community engagement, and collaborative problem-solving.

Whole-Person Preparation

“For too long, higher education has allowed the public to assume that a student’s major is the only thing that matters when it comes to future employment,” says Carol Geary Schneider, president of AAC&U. “This misguided assumption stands directly in the way of educators’ efforts to highlight the strong connections between a liberal education and the skills college graduates will need, both for present-day jobs and jobs of the future,” she says. “People mistakenly assume that majors that sound like a job—accounting, nursing, and so forth—will lead to good jobs, and that broader fields, like English or history or sociology, will not. 

“Yet, as the research evidence shows,” Schneider continues, “what matters to career success is a combination of big-picture knowledge, strong analytical and problem-solving skills, a well-developed sense of ethical responsibility and—especially—the ability to help solve problems with diverse colleagues and partners. Students can and must develop these capacities, whatever their majors.” 

When AAC&U launched its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative in 2005 to engage students, institution leaders, and the public regarding what matters most in a 21st century college education, Schneider and others were determined not to use the term “liberal arts” to frame the conversation. “We decided we should instead go back to the term that Thomas Jefferson used, which is ‘liberal education’—the kind of learning needed to help preserve our liberty as a nation. This is still what we’re talking about—about what learning you need in order to be an active participant in and a contributor both to a free society and to a free-market economy.” 

And that requires thinking beyond any particular discipline or major, argues Schneider. “Knowledge constantly evolves,” she points out. “What graduates need is the capacity to continue their learning—at a very high level—across their careers and throughout their lives.”

The LEAP initiative has engaged numerous educators and employers to seek consensus about the kinds of learning that lead to success, and it has spawned diverse efforts at higher education institutions and systems across the country to infuse these skills and attributes into their curriculum. The LEAP “essential learning outcomes” include: 

“By going to the larger question of what kind of learning is needed to succeed in a global economy, we have uncovered a set of component elements that in fact tie back to the traditions of the liberal arts—knowledge to be a leader, powers of mind, ability to reach wise judgments, and a commitment to civic engagement and ethical responsibility. These are enduring themes in the long history of liberal education and the liberal arts,” says Schneider. “LEAP helps today’s educators connect these forms of learning with contemporary developments and challenges, both in the economy and in society.”

The question of what students should learn raises the question of how best to approach the process. “At the same time that we’ve continued to see the emergence of specialty fields, we’re also seeing priority placed on infusing the core curriculum with a cross-disciplinary focus, to improve collaboration and problem-solving and enhance understanding of current-day challenges in a complex global society,” says Schneider. 

In fact, one of the strongest recommendations to surface through the LEAP initiative is to engage students with cross-disciplinary experiences and studies and to do so across their college studies—from first to final year—so that they learn to work with others on solving real-world problems in whatever they go on to do, notes Schneider. 

Identifying essential learning outcomes for students and incorporating high-impact practices are other key priorities that have emerged from the LEAP initiative. Such practices include first-year seminars, writing-intensive courses, undergraduate research, service learning and community-based learning, internships, study abroad, and capstone courses. 

“Our research and work with partnering organizations show that with these kinds of practices, students are more likely to complete college and make strong gains on learning outcomes,” says Schneider. Through the LEAP initiative, AAC&U is now focused on helping institutions find ways to map these practices within their curriculum. 

Liberal Education for All

Institutions grounded in the liberal arts tradition are not the only ones looking to deliver a healthy dose of liberal education through their curriculum. Miami Dade College, Miami, Florida, hadn’t substantively revised its learning outcomes since the 1980s. In 2005 when a team of faculty began this process, they found that most of the 25 outcomes on their list were tied to specific general education courses. Obviously rethinking what students need with regard to skills and knowledge to be successful in the 21st century workforce was long overdue, says Lenore Rodicio, now provost of academic and student affairs and a former faculty member who was part of the review team. 

“We were determined to recast these outcomes not only in terms of skills and knowledge pertaining to a career or profession, but also for lifelong learning, given that many graduates end up in jobs they are not trained for,” says Rodicio. The set of 10 broad learning outcomes cut across disciplines to include quantitative skills, communication, and knowledge of global perspectives and cultures (see sidebar, “Miami Dade College’s 10 Learning Outcomes”).

“We ended up with a framework that we did not characterize as general education outcomes but as collegewide learning outcomes, to emphasize that these are not only for students in the arts and humanities but for all students, regardless of whether they continue their studies to pursue a bachelor’s degree or have plans to enter the workforce,” says Rodicio. At Miami Dade, conversations turned next to how to refocus coursework to incorporate the outcomes, address what students would need to gain from taking a particular class, and assess how well faculty were hitting the mark. 

Currently faculty and administration are trying to maintain focus on these broad-based learning outcomes with other initiatives gaining momentum, including the need to provide specific career-focused programming and shorter educational pathways to meet new accountability requirements, says Rodicio. Miami Dade is a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation “Completion by Design” grant recipient, so college faculty are immersed in developing structured programming for particular areas of study. 

Making sure students are not only getting courses they need for a particular degree but also are attaining those 10 learning outcomes makes for a more complicated process, admits Rodicio. To aid in that process, the college has created interdisciplinary teams of faculty to determine the most relevant courses for students in a particular pathway, while ensuring room for courses and experiences that address the broader learning outcomes (see sidebar, “Completion as a Workforce Preparation Priority”).

Proof of Performance

Bret Eynon is associate dean for teaching and learning at LaGuardia Community College, Long Island, New York. He is also director of the Making Connections National Resource Center overseeing the Connect to Learning project. For the past three years, the project’s 24 participating institutions have compiled data and best practices for using e-portfolio as a tool to advance the skills and competencies of students. 

At LaGuardia, students have been using e-portfolio for about 10 years. While some majors require this, others do not. Professional and career-oriented programs in particular have been keen on e-portfolio, notes Eynon, recognizing its value not only for classroom learning but also for career preparation in four major ways:  

LaGuardia students come from all over the world—upwards of 70 percent are non–native born from 160 countries, speaking 120 different languages. They start college from very uneven educational backgrounds, with about 80 to 90 percent needing some remediation or basic skills, Eynon notes. 

They are likewise coming in without a full understanding of what employers want. While this interaction with employers is an important part of helping many LaGuardia students figure out what they want to do, Eynon thinks the same would be true for students at a growing number of institutions where demographic shifts are bringing an influx of first-generation students, who may already be struggling culturally, to figure out who they are and how they fit in. 

Institutions participating in the Connect to Learning project are now trying to organize their work into a resource for the higher education sector, notes Eynon. That includes identifying impacts. “Bottom line, we are beginning to see more evidence from the constellation of participating campuses that e-portfolio enhances the classroom experience, encourages students to come back the next semester, and contributes to higher grades.” That’s the kind of data that institutions—and the federal government—want to see more of, he says. “At the same time, we are seeing how e-portfolios help students make connections among what is taking place in the classroom to the larger world and to themselves—who they are and who they hope to become.”

AAC&U’s Schneider suggests that e-portfolios also make the societal value of a liberal and liberating college education far more visible to the wider public, as they help students connect what they achieve through their “high-impact” or engaged learning experiences. “Watching what’s happening with the e-portfolio movement, and reading new research on the benefits to students, we at AAC&U think that e-portfolios will soon be added to the roster of evidence-based, high-impact practices,” says Schneider. 

It Takes a System

Some California State University (CSU) community colleges and state universities are also experimenting with e-portfolio to allow students to organize what they are learning to make a case for proficiency in a given area. The experiment is also providing a way to test transfer and articulation when students can demonstrate what they have learned at another institution. One part of this vision not yet in place is for e-portfolio to be organized and introduced by career center directors to help drive home the point for students that the tool is focused on future academic and employment opportunities, says Ken O’Donnell, CSU senior director of student engagement and academic initiatives and partnerships.

O’Donnell is currently working through the CSU system chancellor’s office to incorporate high-impact practices across the curriculum. “Engaging students in service learning, undergraduate research, and other real-world contexts provides a powerful connection for a population of students who are prone to wonder whether college is worth it,” suggests O’Donnell. 

At the same time, making the case about the value of experiential learning and acquiring some of the softer skills employers need may be a challenge when considering CSU’s primary student population, which is disproportionately composed of lower-income and first-generation students, explains O’Donnell. “Many of our students need reassurance every day that they made the right decision to even attend college. For some, anything we ask them to do that doesn’t seem to have a direct connection to employment may seem like a waste of time and money.” 

 CSU’s goal is to embed a set of high-impact practices within the general education transfer curriculum and to require that every student—regardless of major—complete at least two before they graduate. The hope is to put these requirements in place within the next five years, says O’Donnell. From a logistics standpoint alone, this is a big challenge, he admits. 

Beyond book learning. Several other challenges persist in accomplishing CSU’s goal to make high-impact learning experiences universal. One is trying to adapt these new outcomes-focused learning opportunities to a decades-old, inputs-focused degree requirements structure. At present, most incoming students receive a list of required classes that, once completed, move them on to coursework in their major and eventually to degree completion. 

“If instead we could present the curriculum with a forward-looking orientation that says, ‘Here is the skill set you need the day you graduate, here is where you are now, and here is how you can spend time with us making up the difference’—that would help students focus on learning and the utility of learning rather than the transcript or academic history,” argues O’Donnell. 

Another hurdle is that not every CSU institution has adopted plans to incorporate high-impact practices, while some have been offering them for years. With the high level of student mobility between CSU institutions, students are often the ones to suffer from these inconsistencies, says O’Donnell. Standardizing definitions for these practices is a necessary next step.

“Ultimately giving students more opportunities to take learning out of the classroom and apply what they know to figuring out problems in the community might also improve retention and graduation rates, because they can now see and understand the benefit of what they are learning,” argues O’Donnell. While the data aren’t comprehensive enough to be conclusive, at CSU institutions that have already incorporated high-impact practices, six-year graduation rates have improved from slightly above 50 percent to two thirds while eliminating the ethnicity gap, says O’Donnell. 

“In the short-term this is important because we are building the case for the cost-effectiveness of these practices,” he notes. “On the surface, high-impact practices make no economic sense because they are labor intensive. Yet, if we can improve retention and completion rates by 15 percent, we are essentially driving down costs by making education more engaging.”

Reverse Translation

At the same time that more institutions are grappling with how best to infuse liberal learning into their curriculum, traditional liberal arts colleges are paying more attention to helping students translate the value of their skills and expertise for employers. “College is not an end in itself,” says St. Olaf College President David Anderson. “The whole purpose is to prepare you for a life well lived, and that includes understanding your gifts and talents, what you would like to do with them, and how to align those with needs in the market and in the world.” St. Olaf College is located in Northfield, Minnesota.

For several decades, St. Olaf’s office of experiential learning sat on the periphery of campus. A philanthropic gift and the opportunity to relocate services to the center of campus allowed for re-envisioning what the college could begin to offer students, says Paula Carlson, St. Olaf’s vice president of mission. The Piper Center for Vocation and Career, dedicated in 2012, has quickly grown to support students with a broad range of services. 

The college recently released data on the whereabouts of its class of 2013. Of the 91 percent of graduates with whom the college made contact, 73 percent reported being employed or in full-time service work, while another 24 percent indicated that they are pursuing further education. The report is part of the college’s outcomes initiative aimed at showing the return on investment of a St. Olaf education. 

“The economic collapse in 2008 gave us all a greater sense of urgency, and clarified for college leaders the need to do a better job of preparing students for the workforce,” says Anderson. “Outcomes matter, and we have responsibility as educators to assist, support, encourage, and nurture students in their vocational discernment.” 

Career Education

Andy Chan concurs. “To remain true to our mission of educating the whole person, we need to provide connections and opportunities for students to really learn about themselves,” says Chan, vice president for career development at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. That self-reflection includes thinking about what students want to do beyond their studies, he adds. 

One way that Wake Forest tries to demystify the college-to-career transition is through a series of courses students can take for credit. The first course helps students take stock of who they are from a personal framework to get them to identify their interests, strengths, and beliefs that will inform the kind of work they might like to do. The second explores the world of work. “Most students don’t fully understand all the options, not only for what kind of jobs exist but also of how people work today, so this opens their eyes to those possibilities,” says Chan. 

A third course focuses on the strategic job search, including how to be proficient and efficient in this process. The fourth course addresses professional and life skills to help students take all they have learned in college and to translate this in terms of strengths they offer in the workplace. Currently, almost 500 students are taking these courses each year.

Chan’s cabinet-level position reflects the importance that Wake Forest is placing on student career education and development. At the time senior administration approached Chan in 2009, he was overseeing the career center at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Asked to bring his best ideas for remaking this function into something strategic at Wake Forest, Chan’s starting point was the need to engage and partner across the university community to form a supportive network to help students take ownership of their vocation. 

“Too many students are struggling because institutions are not doing enough in this area,” says Chan. “We need to transform and invest in career center operations.” Innovation is taking place at more institutions, but lack of resources and leadership and faculty support are a problem for many, says Chan. 

In 2012 Wake Forest hosted a national thought leaders conference to discuss effective models and methods for helping students successfully enter the world of work. One conclusion was the need for better partnership between the career office and other groups on campus, including academic, advancement, and alumni relations. “When most think of the student experience, they think of academics. Instead of thinking about career education and development as extracurricular, this should be seen as central to what the institution promises,” argues Chan.  

The Value Conversation

Like it or not, in a day when the cost of college is increasingly being borne by parents and students, the value of education conversation is now front and center, says Richard Staisloff, a principal of rpkGROUP, a national consulting firm supporting colleges, universities, and other nonprofits with their growth and reallocation strategies. That said, Staisloff doesn’t believe the debate should be about defending the value of a robust liberal arts focus versus professional and technical programming. “Where institution leaders should instead place focus is on demonstrating how higher learning generally prepares students to meet marketplace demands and the broader needs of the world today.” 

Yet, equipping students with the skills and attributes employers want is not enough in and of itself. Institutions must do more to connect students to the world of work and to start doing so much earlier, argues Staisloff. In essence, students from Day One should be engaged in thinking about career opportunities and learning about the campus career resources and services available to them. 

Likewise, institution leaders should consider how to embed workplace experiential education across the curriculum, suggests Staisloff. “To do this, leaders must move beyond the notion that this is an option or an add-on, and instead consider some kind of workplace experience as integral to every student’s education.” 

Finally, institutions must commit to transparency, he says. Students and prospective students are already reviewing and comparing institution metrics such as graduation rates and degree production across disciplines. To remain competitive and accountable, colleges and universities increasingly will need to reveal data on such things as job placement of graduates. 

While this heightened focus on helping students make the career connection hasn’t taken hold quickly or universally, Staisloff does see the trend as a positive indicator that more institutions are beginning to pay greater attention to connecting students to the world of work. 

“Until recently, most colleges and universities have not really owned what happens to students once they are handed their diplomas,” says Staisloff. “Increasingly, higher education is being asked to demonstrate the value that students receive from the time they spend on campus.” This is proving somewhat difficult for an industry that has traditionally been very inputs-focused, he notes. “The good news is that colleges and universities have a great story to tell.” 

KARLA HIGNITE, Ogden, Utah, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

E-portfolio advances workforce readiness by forcing students to think about how they present themselves.

To remain competitive and accountable, colleges and universities increasingly will need to reveal data on such things as job placement of graduates.