The purpose of higher-ed: an either-or proposition

Kirstin Toth \
November 20, 2015

When it comes to a well-rounded culture and productive society, which do we want: someone who is a critical thinker, writer, broadly exposed to humanities and arts, and a skilled listener, perhaps with some hands-on work experience? Or, do we want someone who has acquired skills in a particular field of study who can apply that learning, well-prepared to communicate and effectively present themselves, demonstrating their breadth of world learning so that a potential organization can place them in a great job?

How about: all of the above?

The argument over the “purpose of higher education” is often presented as an either-or proposition, suggesting that education for its inherent mind-expanding benefits OR job and career preparation are at odds with one another. I’m suggesting that in most cases, we want both for a well-rounded culture and society. Both of these goals are desired outcomes from a two-year or four-year college or university, as well as from potential employer who is working to recruit students in a specific sector.

Because we have a stark number of students ill-prepared for college due mostly to the ravages of  poverty, the lack of access to supports or a good K-12 foundation, and simply the high cost, we need alternatives for the rising number of students who will not attend traditional four-year colleges and universities. One such opportunity is for students to consider certifications that get them to a living-wage job, and that are “stackable.” Achieving a stackable credential simply means that each level of education builds upon and prepares for the next so that each layer of education (certificates or industry-recognized credentials) counts towards future degrees.

Stark State and Tri-C know how to do this pretty well. And although some four year colleges and universities are beginning to embrace this concept, the tide hasn’t rolled up yet because they haven’t embraced the possibilities of key collaborations to create a true continuum of education. I know that our higher ed partners are beginning to understand the need for cooperation and collaborative approaches to persistence and completion. Their strategies must include access and opportunities for alternatives that match the employer job demand, but also provide students with a grounding in the humanities (English, art, social sciences, history, etc) that help them form critical thinking and analysis skills, not to mention an appreciation for cultural values and norms that inform basic behavior. It is this educational approach that will lead to the truly “job-ready” candidates we hear employers asking for.

Summit Workforce Solutions is currently working with a pilot group of employers who are exploring new ways of assessing potential applicants and will be considering a variety of alternative assessments that may not include the traditional “seat time” requirements for traditional degrees of colleges, but that support the development of the whole person. Families are also asking for a greater understanding of how a college education will help their students succeed for the long term, especially when weighed against the high-cost and likely debt.

I see the skills and knowledge acquisition as both crucial to a productive and creative society- from any post-secondary institution. A higher-ed regional economic collaborative approach does not have to be at the expense of the much-needed writers, teachers, mathematicians, musicians- all those dubbed the creative class – that also must be trained by our universities, and to pursue cutting edge research.

Economies thrive most when there is real diversity: diversity of industries, a thriving arts sector, and considerable creative pursuits for the exchange of cultures and education.

Header Image: Shane Wynn | Akron Stock