By Doug Ward

Those of us in higher education like to think of ourselves as preparing students for the future.

That’s a lofty goal with a heavy burden. Predicting the future is a fool’s game, and yet as educators we have accepted that responsibility by offering degrees that we tell our students will have relevance for years to come.

In our courses and with our colleagues, we simply don’t talk nearly enough about how we foresee the future and what role our disciplines will play. We have a responsibility to ask ourselves difficult questions: What skills will our students need not just next year, but in the next decade and the 40 or 50 years after that? What can we do to prepare students for a future we can’t possibly predict?

Michael Murray writes on a white board as other professors talk in the background
Michael Murray, professor of physics, summarizes notes from a group discussion during a STEM sexual harassment prevention workshop. The workshop, held earlier this month, was sponsored by the Center for STEM Learning and led by Blair Schneider of KU and Meredith Hastings of Brown.

The core curriculum is certainly part of the answer, emphasizing such broad skills as critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, communication, ethics, creativity, and synthesis. Those show up frequently in the lists of skills for the future issued by various organizations and industries. Other skills I’ve seen listed recently on those lists include agility, resilience, flexibility, entrepreneurism, technological know-how, relationship building, systems thinking, global awareness, online collaboration, emotional intelligence, and an ability to spot trends. Groupings of those are sometimes referred to as “power skills.”

You can find many others. Most likely you have your own. Or you may prefer to think about higher education in broader terms, much as Bernard Bull, assistant vice president for academics at Concordia University Wisconsin, wrote about recently:

“The essence of a great college experience is not a college degree. It is a rich, engaging, empowering, enlightening and transformative learning experience. It is the experience of a network that may well extend through one’s lifetime. It is the experience of being immersed in a culture of curiosity and a love of learning. It is a place where you are stretched, challenged, inspired, and pushed to discover meaning and purpose in your life and the world around you.”

Most certainly, college helps students learn about themselves, their peers and society, develop independence and responsibility, and gain enough disciplinary understanding to apply skills in a meaningful (if often rudimentary) way. There’s a danger in being too general, though, because those generalizations make academia an easy target for critics, who like to paint higher education as out of touch and irrelevant. In that view, all a person needs is hard work, ingenuity and grit, not a college degree. Drawing on those inner skills is not only practical but much, much cheaper.

A variation on that theme posits that college students are ill-prepared for the jobs of today, let alone the jobs of tomorrow. You don’t have to look far to find scathing portrayals of universities as mindless playgrounds in which students dally for four (or five or six) years and emerge mired in debt and no more prepared to face the world than when they started college.

Both of those portrayals hold grains of truth, but they also view education through the lens of neo-liberal utilitarianism. In that view, the only valuable skill is one that leads to monetary gain and the only valuable graduates are those that fit like cogs into predetermined slots of corporate machinery. A degree, in that view, is all about the money. The federal government has backed that perspective by promoting comparisons of graduates’ salaries vs. cost of degree, and universities have perpetuated it themselves as they have whittled away at the liberal arts, raised tuition to levels that stretch ordinary families to the limit, and run themselves like corporations rather than nonprofits that serve the public good. States and the federal government have forced universities to adopt that way of thinking as they have slashed spending on higher education and turned student loans into a guaranteed profit center for private lenders.

There’s plenty of blame to go around.

It’s the beginning of the semester, though. Students and instructors have a chance to start anew. We can’t solve all the problems of higher education in a single semester, no more than we can teach students all the skills they need in a single class. We can and must keep the broader picture in mind, though, as we lead students into a new exploration of disciplinary challenges, societal problems, and academic inquiries. As we do, though, we must remember that knowledge is useless without an ability to apply it, and that skills have limited currency without an ability to refresh, revise and remake them.

So as you begin the semester, consider this: What are you doing to prepare your students for the future? And how will they know they are on the right track?

Worth considering …

“I think it is important for parents to be situated in the context of the digital revolution through which we are living. It was only 11 years ago that the iPhone was introduced, and faster download speeds, and it has transformed almost all of American community life. Inevitably, for good or for ill, it’s going to transform where education heads.”

—Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, speaking at the ExcelinEd conference

Briefly …

The Midwest is producing an increasingly larger share of graduates in technology-related fields, the website OZY reports. Twenty-five percent of computer science graduates now come from the Midwest, OZY writes, saying that “tomorrow’s innovators may never set foot in Silicon Valley.”  … The Atlantic looks at the struggle that the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point faces in maintaining liberal arts programs amid budget cuts and a declining number of majors. … Providing students more direction and community could help reverse declining enrollments in history programs, Jason Steinhauer of Villanova argues in a Time column. … Politico writes about how free college, an idea usually associated with liberal politics, has been enthusiastically embraced in conservative Tennessee.


Doug Ward is the acting director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.