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What Parents and Students Should Look for in Colleges and Majors

Most of the high school seniors that I talk to tell me they aren’t sure what they want to do when they graduate. Some will declare a major course of study for college but even they will concede, “I’ll have to see if it feels right once I start.” Others tell me they’re not sure any college offers what they’ll need to do the kind of work they envision doing as an entrepreneur. In fact, they wonder if college is necessary.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Part of the problem is, the students I talk to are very aware that the job market will be different and ever changing when they’re done with college. What’s more, 18 years old is awfully young to know exactly what you’d like to do upon launching into your career. It makes for an expensive experiment for parents and students.

How Did We Get Here?

photo credit: HendersonStateU Heart Start 2017 via photopin (license)

Over a hundred years ago, the emerging industrial revolution required American colleges to evolve from the 19th century, where most focused on a handful of jobs or professions, such as law or ministerial work. The demand was for colleges to become universities and serve a broader vocational spectrum. Harvard University’s president, Charles Elliott, admitted in 1908 that schools must offer electives because one, single major could not possibly teach all that a graduate needed to know upon graduation.

I think we’re on the verge of another college revolution.

The system we set up over the last one hundred years can no longer keep up with the changing economy and marketplace, which has been introduced to smart technology. Marketplace analytics group, Burning Glass Technologies, published a 2015 report calling for schools to prepare students for “hybrid jobs” which require a set of skills much wider than a single major offers them. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “the future calls for something more radical: the elimination of academic majors as we have come to know them.”

What Might This Look Like?

I believe we need to come up with a system in higher education that allows for a “streaming” set of courses that adapts with the times, while simultaneously instills timeless skills and virtues graduates will need—regardless of the times they live in. Just like we now watch “streaming video” on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime, we need a more fluid offering of subjects that students can identify they’ll need as they graduate and discover they’ll get a job that didn’t exist their freshman year. So, what do we do now? Let me suggest some ideas for parents and students:

1. Look for schools that offer cross-pollinated courses graduates will need.

Most graduates who’ll become managers need to experience business courses, psychology courses, technology science courses as well as sociology courses—and perhaps even international business courses as we progress further into a global economy. Most of these subjects are not general education subjects. According to Jeffrey Silengo, “Arizona State University has created entirely new schools and colleges where students can earn bachelor’s degrees in innovation in society and the science of healthcare delivery.” Look for universities that do this kind of thing. We need more courses for upperclassmen that span across academic disciplines.

2. Look for schools that are quick to adapt as our marketplace demands it.

I totally understand that academic committees have played an important role in the past when new ideas for courses pop up. We need a filter for big decisions like this. Schools, however, must find a way to change quicker. Perhaps they can beta test a new course or major, while studying its long-term impact on the campus. I used to make fun of colleges that allowed students to literally make up their major, as I felt they might make a decision our economy won’t feed. Today, however, I believe students must find schools that are adaptable like this while offering guidance.

In his book called, Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun suggests a learning model he calls “humanics.” It blends technical, social and data skills and, in the process, develops “higher-order mental skills, like critical thinking, systems thinking, cultural agility and entrepreneurship.” It requires professors and families to collaborate in order to prepare graduates for the new world they’ll enter. Sounds better than “silos” to me.

3. Look for schools who are able to hold funerals for certain majors or courses.

I have noticed over thirty years that schools are great at adding new courses and majors, but poor at ending them. Colleges cannot sustain this current model, as survival will demand change and administrators will need to make tough decisions by doing both “overhauls” on departments and “funerals” for certain majors. I know this isn’t politically correct, but higher education must operate like any other business: when a product isn’t working, you change it or stop selling it. You don’t keep it on the shelf for “old times sake.” Look for schools that run like a business, like Grand Canyon University or Georgia State University.

Last year, The Gallup organization and the Strada Education Network conducted multiple surveys with university students. They found a “disconnect between what students learn in college, their majors and their ability to find a fulfilling life and career.” We’ve got to find a way to change this.


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What Parents and Students Should Look for in Colleges and Majors