Monday, April 18, 2011

Ready to Graduate? Or Ready to Work?

Ready to Graduate? Or Ready to Work?
What is the responsibility of a college to its students? This is one of the key questions lying behind the current discussion about whether college graduates should be getting a job in the area they study. I believe that colleges and universities should be accountable for achieving standards of learning for their graduates that are verifiable through third party standards and review. But to take the next step and say that the school has failed if the graduates do not work in the field for which they were prepared ignores the dynamics of today’s workplace and workforce as well as common sense.  It also bypasses the core issue of quality.
I know three people between the ages of 30 and 40. One has a BA in Writing. He’s an emergency room doctor. Another has an American Studies Degree. He is a trained lawyer doing education policy work. The third has a philosophy degree. He is in communications as a governor’s press secretary.  I have Master’s in teaching and never taught a day. Did our colleges fail us? Or did they actually prepare us for the dynamics of life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries?
What the current employment discussion misses is the quality dimension. Rather than worrying solely about degree completion, we should worry about the learner’s attainment of the skills and knowledge that we say the curriculum is teaching. No one can control what the economy or what another person actually does. We can, however, control whether the attainment level that we have assigned to the completed course of studies, has been met by the learners who complete. And we can control for whether that attainment level connects accurately with the actual requirements of the careers that fall within their scope.  
This can be achieved using course-level learning outcomes that connect to the program outcomes on the academic side inside a college. And we can connect outcomes as capacities needed to meet the requirements defined by employers as necessary for success upon entering the workplace in specific professions at specific levels. For one example, see the Work Keys program at ACT. And we can do the same for the intellectual and content areas generally related to general education as well. Then, the academic and the employment hierarchies can be connected to create a matrix that connects college learning with workplace readiness and benchmarks both.
For those who say the employment discussion won’t touch their institutions, I disagree. People – parents and policy-makers as well as publicly elected officials - are going to want to know how good the learning achievements are for how many learners when compared to externally benchmarked standards. In other words, they will want to know what they are getting for their time and money. In this emerging world, the institution that can give clear and transparent answers to those questions; those colleges that can show that they have the right standards and they meet them with a majority of their learners, will have the respect of the society. Those that will not or cannot will not, over time, sustain that respect.
Attainment, with completion, defined by outcomes tied to external standards and verified by valid, reliable and consistent assessment, are the keys to this future.  Then our graduates won’t just be ready to graduate, they will be ready to join the workforce and the civil society.

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