Lifelong learning

Yesterday I was speaking with friends and the topic of the conversation shifted to the current generation of college students and the differences between their experience and ours. Present were folks my age, and others who are about the age of our children. All were college graduates. We noted the obvious differences between our experience and that of today’s generation of students. While we incurred some debt in pursuing our education, it was relatively minor and easily paid back. Those who were the age of our children had incurred more debt and had struggled to pay it back. But the cost of a college education has gone up dramatically. It is double and even triple what the cost was for those who graduated 10 to 15 years ago. The cost of housing and healthcare have also become important economic factors for today’s generation of college students. They understand that there are many jobs which may be honorable work, but which simply do not pay enough to cover housing and healthcare costs.

There have been studies and surveys of college students for many years. Because many studies are university-based, and undertaken as student projects, surveying other students is a ready field for study. The studies show that the choices students are making about college and their choice of college majors is more driven about what job they can get upon graduation and less about preparing for life in general. Students feel less free to pursue their personal interests in education and more constrained to selecting colleges and career fields as a studied investment. Financial security has become more important in the choice of college than a sense of vocation.

Fewer students are majoring in the humanities. More choose science, technology, engineering and math - known as STEM. They believe that these fields will help their employment prospects upon graduation.

It doesn’t always work out, even for those who are astute their choices. While unemployment among recent college graduates is at historic lows, underemployment is not. According to a recent Harris Poll, 40 percent of college graduates are underemployed, meaning they are in jobs that don’t require a college degree.

Colleges are resisting pressures to become simply trade schools for jobs with higher compensation. The mission of a college is varied. Colleges exist to prepare citizens for the world, to assist adolescents in becoming adults and to conduct research. They are promoting the increase of knowledge and the sharing of insight and research with the world. To focus solely on the income prospects of their students would require narrowing the focus and abandoning some long-standing academic goals.

Employers often are looking for skill-specific certificates rather than general degrees when selecting new hires. Some universities, such as the University of Utah, are giving seniors the opportunity to earn certificates in fields such as data analysis and instructional design a a part of their academic career. There are advocates who say that such certificates are more valuable in seeking high paying jobs than traditional degrees.

I think that the focus on employment upon graduation and the income levels in the early years following graduation can be incredibly short-sighted. Colleges may succeed in enabling graduates to begin their careers with high-paying jobs, but ours is a society in which jobs and careers change at a frequent rate. Many current career fields will not exist, or at least will be dramatically changed over the next ten years. Having a high paying job right now doesn’t give one the skills to pursue the new jobs that will emerge over time.

When I was a student, there was a great emphasis on developing the basic skills for lifelong learning. We were taught that we needed to continue research and education throughout our lives and that the ability to continue learning was more important than any specific set of skills. This has certainly proven to be true over the 40 years of my life as a minister. I began my career typing my sermons on a manual typewriter. I now serve as the computer network administrator for our church. I have no formal education in setting up routers and firewalls and other hardware and software, but having skills to produce effective websites and social media is increasingly important in the life of the church. There are many other changes in the tasks I perform and in the skills sought by pastoral search committees. To remain current has meant that I need to read a lot. I had had to be adaptable and flexible. I believe that my ability to adapt to changing circumstances has been the result of a basic liberal-arts education as a foundation. It has also given me the skills not only to succeed early in my career, but to continue in my field throughout my life.

In all fairness, I have not chosen a career that ranks among the highest-paid. My experience has been that of gaining benefits from my vocation that are beyond financial compensation.

I fear that universities and colleges, in seeking to respond to the demand for high paying jobs for graduates are focusing too much on the short-term and ignoring the long-term benefits of education. It isn’t just a matter of what jobs students obtain upon graduation, but where they are 5 and 10 and even 20 years after graduation. Do they benefit from the investment in their education for all of their lives, or just initially upon graduation?

The world of work has changed and it will continue to change in the decades to come. Colleges and universities need to be aware of the rate of change and the need of their students to graduate not only with the skills necessary to obtain full employment upon graduation, but also with the skills that will empower life-long learning and flexibility to participate in a rapidly-changing world of work. I doubt that making colleges more like technical schools will provide a solution to the challenges of education of the future.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!