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Learning to Think

Jun 19, 2015

The daily newsfeed Inside Higher Ed reported recently that, while two-thirds of students considered themselves adequately prepared to enter college, only 20% felt the same about entering the workforce upon graduation. The data, from McGraw-Hill’s 2015 workforce readiness survey, reveal a striking disconnect between students’ expectations and their experience.

The study of nearly 1,000 college students suggests that colleges and universities should be doing more to prepare graduates for the workforce . . . at least in students’ minds. That notion leads to the larger and often contentious question, what is college for?

Answers to that question expose significant generational differences. 58% of the students who responded to the survey believe their time in college should adequately prepare them for the workplace. More than half expected to learn how to write a resume, to interview for a job, to network and be advised how to search for a job. The majority of surveyed students clearly wish their college experience had focused more on career-related skills.

Yet if you read the comments at the bottom of the IHE news blurb, you’ll find a very different attitude, and one not at all complimentary toward today’s students. In sum, the comments reflect a belief that the purpose of higher education is to become educated. Period.

Might there be a both/and option here? A case to be made that educating the whole person includes some attention to the question of life after college? Given that student debt now tops consumer credit spending, what should students be getting in exchange for the investment they’re making to earn a degree?

As a chief academic officer, I listened to faculty who complained about students not reading tell me it wasn’t their business to teach students to read, that their primary and secondary school teachers were responsible for that. But isn’t it our business to teach students how to read in a particular discipline, or read closely, or read for inference?

In the same way, we expect students will come to college knowing how to think. In a thoughtful essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 18, 2015), Barry Schwartz suggests that knowing how to think involves both cognitive skills and intellectual virtues such as perseverance, honesty, empathy and good listening. He believes that a college education can develop intellectual virtues, in essence training (yes, he uses that word) students for their future workplaces.

I don’t know if the students who responded to the McGraw-Hill survey would consider learning to think the kind of preparation for the workplace they desired, but I expect a good number of employers would be pleased.

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