General Education, the Four-Year Degree and Employment: What Needs to Change?

October 15, 2014

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Former ACE assistant vice president for education, attainment and innovation Deborah Seymour asks where students should be learning particular skill sets—college or the workplace?

Think about this question: Which segment of the four-year degree is supposed to enhance students’ employable skills and prepare them for a job?

Most would probably think, the courses in their degree major, of course.

But increasingly, we are hearing employers say they can train employees in the specialized technical skills associated with their jobs. It’s the intangible skills that actually make people employable in the first place that they hope will be taught—and not just taught, but inculcated—by colleges and universities.

In academia, this translates as the general education skill set being more important to employers than the student’s upper-division major courses. But employers also claim that the general education courses required by most institutions today don’t provide students with these much-needed skills, and that they must provide additional training in these basic skills once a new hire is in place.

As many will agree, it is unlikely that classroom-based courses can substitute for actual work experience; and indeed, more and more post-secondary students today are already part of the workforce. What these students are looking for from a college degree is the academic rigor of a curriculum and the sophisticated application of the major-area skills required for college upper-division assessment.

But for those students who take the traditional path to a four-year degree, there is an expectation that the general education curriculum (often called the core curriculum or breadth requirements) will provide the underlying skills of critical thinking, reading, writing, math, problem-solving and situation analysis that are required for most jobs. What employers seem to be saying now, however, is that general education programs are either not teaching these skills or are not ensuring that students actually learn them.

This claim, if true, requires us to begin investigating new approaches to the well-accepted general education tradition in higher education. Here are a few to kick off the discussion:

  • Re-examine the general education curriculum on a per-institution basis, determine how to infuse more tangible workplace experiences into courses and assess students accordingly.
  • Conduct studies of general education curricula and utilize best practices from the most job-applicable ones to revamp curricula across university systems.
  • Require students, in addition to completing their required course credits, to have at least some work experience in order to complete a four-year degree (e.g., internship, apprenticeship, part-time job).
  • Consider doing away with most general education requirements altogether and making the path to degree completion shorter, overtly placing more of the burden for skills training on employers.

If we choose the last approach, the implication is that postsecondary students would learn the content needed for their major or concentration during their studies, while acquiring the intangible skills from their job.

Of course, this thinking is backwards. In order to become competent in the major degree area in most four-year programs, the scaffolding comes from the general education content and skills absorbed while studying in lower-division, general education courses.

Hence the dilemma: Which set of skills in reality comes from higher education and which from the workplace? and which set of skills should come from higher education and which from the workplace?

In service to all students, we really ought to figure out the answer.

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