By Doug Ward
The future of higher education may very well hinge on our skill as interpreters and communicators.
Too often, though, we never bother to define the terms we use or to help students, parents, and employers understand the purpose and significance of a college education, Ashley Finley told participants at the 2021 KU Teaching Summit last week.
“We develop language as currency,” said Finley, who is vice president for research at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “and we communicate with each other about a shared meaning without really ever actually defining” what we mean.
Finley is a sociologist who has studied such areas as assessment, high-impact practices, equity in institutional outcomes, and student success. In her presentation at the Teaching Summit, she drew on a recent AAC&U report she wrote titled How College Contributes to Workforce Success, based on a survey of executives and hiring managers at 496 companies. That report contains both good and bad news for colleges and universities.
For instance, 87% of executives and hiring managers said a degree was definitely or probably worth it, but a smaller percentage (67%) said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in higher education. Finley compared those results to a random sample of adults who were asked the same question. Only 60% thought a college degree was worth the time and money.
“We have to get serious about how we’re communicating out what we do,” Finley said. Colleges and universities need to do better at telling their story, she said, not only to employers but to students.
“That explicitness is absolutely for our students,” she said. “They will be our best ambassadors.”
Finley used the term well-rounded as an example of why good communication is important. In academia, we often talk about a need for well-rounded students, but we rarely explain what that means. Students create their own interpretations, though, as Finley showed with a student quote from a focus group:
“I don’t know too many jobs that the job is being well-rounded. You know, it’s not like you’re going to work at Well-Rounded Inc. or something.”
Finley said she appreciated the student’s snark.
“They’ve taken us to task for not defining this thing that we lob in front of them constantly,” Finley said.
She also said the comment was a “good reality check” for educators, in part because of the connection the student made between education and employment.
“They linked it with a job, as if to suggest what you do for me as a person, how I situate myself in a community, and what I learn about a sense of purpose doesn’t have anything to do with the work that I’ll do,” Finley said.
Defining the common good
Another term we often fail to define, Finley said, is common good. She referred to the title of her presentation – Learning for Our Common Good: The Overlapping Skills of Successful Lives and Careers – and said that we all had different definitions of common good and that we rarely shared those definitions with others. She tried to unpack the term.
“When we are talking about a common good, we are talking about a greater purpose,” Finley said. “We are talking about how work influences our life, builds a sense of identity, gives our own sense of purpose in the world.”
The common good, she said, is closely tied to the overlapping skills we want students to acquire while they are in college. She asked members of the audience to offer their thoughts on those skills and on how students should be different by the time they graduate. The responses painted a broad picture of aspirations within the academy:
- To critically evaluate what they read and hear
- To gain perspectives on people and stories other than their own
- To be problem-solvers and “realize that there’s a whole big world out there”
- To be more open to diverse people and perspectives
- To try new things without fear of mistakes
- To feel empowered to make the world a better place
We all might add our own flavor and content to those things, Finley said, but they all sound perfectly reasonable for any discipline. She then asked:
“At the end of the day, can we in fact have a common conversation about what matters, and the standards to which we might hold ourselves for students’ learning and for their success?”
The employer view
Articulating a clearer sense of higher education will require us to move past the “false binaries” we often create, Finley said. Those include things like depth vs. breadth, and academic vs. practical skills. They all matter, she said. Higher education should be committed to knowledge, and “equally committed to the ways in which we equip students to have the skills to use knowledge, to create new knowledge, to have an imagination.”
Employers generally see the value in the many skills students gain in college, Finley said. They also value things like mindset, aptitudes, and character. The most recent AAC&U study showed a disconnect between the skills that colleges and universities emphasize and the views employers have on students’ career preparedness. When she and other researchers at AAC&U looked more closely at data from the employer survey, though, they found a stark difference in the perceptions of executives and hiring managers 40 and younger and those 50 and older. Those under 40 are more optimistic about student preparation. They also value different skills.
For instance, younger employers put considerably more emphasis on the need for critical thinking, leadership skills, empathy, and an ability to work with numbers and statistics. More broadly, they are far more likely than their older colleagues to say that a college education should encourage engagement in communities, foster a sense of social justice, focus on global issues, and emphasize the liberal arts and sciences.
“This felt like a game-changer to us,” Finley said, adding: “Hello, liberal arts. And hello, community-based learning.”
A need for articulation
If the views of younger employers offered optimism about the core values of higher education, another study that Finley brought up muddied the picture. That study showed a growing gap between the number of campuses that say they have learning outcomes and the number of students who are aware of those outcomes. She called that a “reality check of how our own communication is going.”
We have to increase the visibility of our core goals, Finley said. We have to do a better job of communicating, and we have to do a better job of projecting the type of outcomes we care about. This will require a nuanced approach to career preparation, she said, and must help students connect the dots among the courses they take and the experience they gain while in college. By the time students graduate, they should be different, she said.
“It’s not just about what they know and can do; it’s about who they are. And should they be able to persist through failure? Should they be a little more resilient? Should they have a sense of what it means to flourish?”
The answer to all of those is yes, of course, and Finley was optimistic that faculty could work through the many challenges before them.
“Good teachers are good learners,” Finley said. “You have to be humble to learn something new, and I hope that is always a point of connection we have with our students.”
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You will find a recording of Finley’s presentation at the Teaching Summit on the CTE website.
Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.