Well, at this point it’s quite clear that the current higher education system is outdated. But what should school be?
There’s an argument that we don’t need higher education at all. I disagree for a few main reasons:
- Just because it doesn’t work today, doesn’t mean it can’t. It just needs a major overhaul. Like an infant develops into a toddler, late teens develop into young adults. Young adults need time and experience to develop into mature, responsible, professional, capable, effective adults who we can trust in our workplaces. Higher education can be a great place for this if done effectively.
- Young adults can greatly benefit from a place and a facilitated structure to help them develop into strong, capable leaders of society. Without this entirely, we’d be completely leaving it up to chance that our current society’s workplaces will adequately prepare and train our young adults in both soft and hard skills.
- Career exploration is already broken. To allow young adults to start working so early is good — to help them gain experience and exposure — but if you do that fully without any supplemental education it becomes their full-time experience. Then, they’d be pigeonholing themselves into careers even more than they already are. We all know that this backfires into job-hopping and job disengagement, and those are metrics we don’t want to increase.
So what can we do?
Here’s my proposal for how higher education can be revamped to actually work.
Every semester every young adult should have an internship. This would equate to 11 internships including summertime. Mind you, this would decrease the cost of school, and increase young adults’ self-reliance. Most of all, this would enable young adults to get greater real-world experience and career exposure. The Bates Purposeful Work study shows that with 2 or more internships, 34% of students found purpose at work, whereas for those with 0 internships, only 21% found purpose at work. There is a direct correlation between increased career exposure and helping young adults figure out their ideal career path. The results here are still slim, but it does help.
25% Core Required Classes in Soft Skills
Some of these required 4-credit courses could include things like
- Freshmen: Goals & Project Management, Health (Mental/Physical), Time (Past/Present/Future)
- Sophomores: Problem Solving, Relationships/Communication, Presenting, Decision Making/Structured Thinking
- Juniors: Choice/Life Design/Purpose, Self-Awareness/Growth/Feedback, Societal and Corporate Governance
- Seniors: Professional Responsibility, Conflict Management/Resiliency, Personal Finance
25% Hard Skills
2 credit classes would supplement 4 credit classes. They’d include any hard skill you could imagine from software engineering coding languages to any artistic, medical or legal skills or any relevant computer system. This allows flexibility to ensure that hard skill classes remain relevant and modern.
- Make-your-major — Overall, each student should be required to define and title their major. There could be suggested groupings for hard skills that line up with certain career paths, but overall, I believe that by allowing complete flexibility of choice for hard skills, it allows students to question and research what skills they want to pursue, what they’ll be good at, what they’ll enjoy, and directly translate into much stronger job fit. Lots of research shows the power of enabling and empowering students to opt into certain topics and projects as a way to directly increase their motivation and output.
- “Try before you Buy” Classes — Oftentimes students are creative enough to sit in on several classes before they solidify their choices for the semester, but other times many students don’t think to do this. There needs to be an easier way for students to browse and test various classes before solidifying their choices (a week dedicated to 20 minute example lectures by each professor where students attend and reflect on what they heard and felt about the topics, or viewing a quick video of a prior semester’s lecture, or something else of the sort).
- No GPA’s — In a world where interviews can be done objectively based on someone’s capabilities and job fit, we won’t need to rely on GPA’s as signals (same as how we shouldn’t rely on the name of someone’s school). By ridding students’ need for “learning to the test,” they can focus on a) genuinely absorbing information b) engaging actively in class because the incentive is aligned with their goals (learning and growing) c) producing valuable work output that they can talk about in said interviews. Instead, perhaps they can be measured against soft skills that matter: respect, timeliness, professionalism, perseverance, curiosity, focus, quality work (applying class concepts), openness, growth.
- On top of this, clubs should very well remain a thing. Ideally, each student would be required to participate in one club per semester. This would allow students to have even greater autonomy in researching and leading within various aspects of the working world.
- The effect on graduate paths — Of course there is the question of how this affects very specific graduate paths such as law school, medical school, etc. I’d propose that there would still be certain minimal requirements for hard skills to complete before entering, but much less, which would still prepare young adults enough for a graduate degree.
- Services — Strip out all additional services beyond classes. — I believe that any career services, academic services, counseling services, etc., should be independent of any higher education entity. Thus, these services will be objectively aligned with the incentives of each student and can be leveraged if and when the student requires them, without adding to the extreme cost of higher education. This also then allows schools’ incentives and goals to simply be the best preparation of each student rather than their placement, allowing other organizations to support students’ job search. They may still be measured on placement success but it will be a direct result of their class preparation rather than the strength of their career services department.
- Time — I think this can still have a four-year timeline especially since there would be a 50% work requirement during each semester.
- Cost — As such, this would drastically decrease the cost to attend these institutions.
- Impact on high school / below — To continue thinking about how this could change schooling at an earlier age is a much bigger conversation. I think that high schools could follow similar guidelines or concepts, but I do think if college courses will focus more on soft skills + modern hard skills, that prior schooling should still have a bulk devoted to learning necessary and basic fundamental concepts and skills (math, science, etc). However, I do think there’s a lot we can adjust in the style and delivery of how we share that basic information, i.e., following the guidelines of allowing more flexibility and freedom of choice for projects and topics taught to ensure students remain motivated and engaged. (Watch the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed” if you’d like to check out what top high schools are doing).
- Impact on learning after college — It has become clear that the future of education is “lifelong learning.” I wonder if a new arrangement can be made for any “alumni” who provide internships for current students to be able to receive credits to continue to take courses in return (likely the hard skills courses). Whether its this arrangement or some other, it will become necessary to continue providing lifelong learning, so why not have universities win here versus outside organizations? If we want to turn universities’ focus to its core competency — teaching, that doesn’t mean it has to stop upon graduation. I think this should become part of the university model to continue to engage and train/teach “alumni” throughout their careers. If these 2 credit hard skill courses could be offered virtually, universities could charge a reasonable annual fee for alumni to continue accessing these courses and then, they’d be adding a small passive revenue stream. At the end of the day, a university student or a working professional may very well need to learn the same hard skills to prepare for and succeed in their role and in their industry.
What are your thoughts? Is this a school you’d opt into? What am I missing here? Can you envision it? I don’t know about you, but to me, it sounds dreamy.