An organization that advocates for "practical liberal education" for undergraduates says the push to increase America's college-going rate, now being championed by President Obama and others, is too limited and could leave too many students with narrow training that fails to equip them for jobs — and for lives — in the global economy.
The current focus on college going and college access is important but "short-circuits the core issue of educational quality," says a statement issued on Wednesday by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
"A great democracy cannot be content to provide a horizon-expanding education for some, and work skills, taught in isolation from the larger societal context, for everyone else," the statement says. "Access and completion are necessary but far from sufficient."
The association, which counts 1,200 colleges as members, is holding its annual meeting here this week. The group promotes curricula that consciously give students both a broad grounding in the arts and sciences and a set of intellectual and practical skills, such as information literacy and proficiency in oral and written communication.
Carol Geary Schneider, the group's president, said the statement was prompted by the economic climate and the Obama administration's plans to pour billions of dollars into programs to help more students graduate from college (especially community college).
"It would be a tragedy," the statement says, "and a massive failure of vision for our future" if the new investments in education flow mainly to programs that provide narrow training or short-term credentials that don't incorporate the skills and knowledge that today's society and economy demand.
"We need an ambitious vision for learning to match the ambitious agenda on access," Ms. Schneider said in an interview. "Students are not hearing what they should learn in college."
Mixed Views From Employers
The association coupled its statement on "The Quality Imperative" with the release of the results of a new poll of employers. Only 26 percent of respondents said two-year colleges were "doing a good job" of preparing students effectively for the challenges of today's global economy. Twenty percent said "significant improvement" was needed. The employers' perception of four-year colleges was only slightly better: 28 percent said the colleges were doing a good job, while 19 percent said significant improvements were needed.
Ms. Schneider said the findings bolstered the argument for the kind of liberal education the association promotes.
What's needed, said Ms. Schneider, is a national dialogue to help students understand the value of a broader education and ways to distinguish it from a narrow one.
"No one tells them, Don't just spend your time installing solar panels; you want to learn about energy," she said. "No one gives first-generation students this advice."
She said the problem lay with many kinds of institutions, not simply with certain community colleges or career colleges. Plenty of traditional four-year colleges "are not doing what they need to do" to prepare their students for 21st-century opportunities," she said. Such colleges fall short, she said, because they don't require senior projects in which students integrate course work from various classes, don't require substantial amounts of writing, or don't require students to do much problem solving or learn much about the rest of the world.
Creating a 'Bifurcation'
Mary Spilde, president of Lane Community College, in Oregon, and a member of the association's Board of Directors, said liberal education was often easier to achieve at four-year liberal-arts colleges, where students typically enter with better academic preparation, enjoy small classes, and have fewer outside obligations such as full-time jobs.
But the difficulties faced by other students — obstacles the statement describes as "systemic arrangements that now impede access" to liberal education — are no excuse for institutions like hers and others to avoid the challenge of thinking critically about the curricula they offer.
"It's hard to do it when there has been such disinvestment," she said. "But if we don't do it, then we're creating this bifurcation, and that is not moving the country forward."
At her institution, for example, students who earn associate degrees get a good grounding in general education and many of the critical-thinking skills the association endorses, she said. But the skills taught in the college's one-year certificate programs, such as computation, communication, and human relations, may not be broad enough. "I think employers are saying they want more," she said.
The employer survey, conducted by Hart Research Associates, asked 302 employers about specific emerging educational practices and their value in helping prepare college students for success. Three practices drew particularly strong support: expecting students to complete a significant project to demonstrate in-depth knowledge of their major and acquire a range of analytical, problem-solving, and communication skills; expecting students to complete an internship or other experience that would expose them to real-world issues; and ensuring that students had the skills to conduct research on questions in their field.
In contrast, the employers surveyed were relatively less enthusiastic about practices such as expecting students to acquire hands-on skills in the methods of science, expecting students to learn about cultural and ethnic diversity in the United States, expecting students to learn about the point of view of non-Western societies, and expecting students to take courses exploring such big societal challenges as environmental sustainability, public health, or human rights. Still, at least 50 percent said each of those practices would help prepare students a lot or a fair amount.