Education and Social Mobility: Thoughts on How Curriculum Design can Provide Students With a Return on Their Investment

Given the current employment levels and the mounting student debt crisis, I think it’s a safe thing to say that our industry is under fire.  So today I figured I’d share this article by Dan Berrett from the Chronicle.  I’ll let you read it for yourself before you continue on.

The focus of the article was about a study two economists made trying to assess factors in the post college success of their students.  The funny thing occurred when they compared two students.  They couldn’t find any conclusive evidence that the college degree both students earned was a deciding factor in their employment outcomes.  They couldn’t even correlate the college experience with the skills that got them their job.

That’s startling news seeing as higher ed in this country is touted as the last bastion of social mobility.  But if you really think about it, we are working with an outdated model of higher education.  Think about it, how much has education really changed since the 1900s?  Sure, we have coeducation, online education and a more egalitarian method of providing people with access to these vehicles of social mobility, but have we actually kicked the tires of the curriculum we’re using?  Is there a particular reason we’re doing things like the Carnegie-Mellon grading system or Credit Hours?  How does an “4.0” translate to success in the modern job market?

My question for the week is, if we are going to market ourselves as a vehicle of social mobility, how can we, as educators, make sure that our instructional methods, as well as our instructional content is provided in a way that is conducive to a student achieving that end? 

I hate to beat a dead horse but when I think of innovation in higher ed, I think of the Minerva Project and (if you don’t mind my soapbox) these are the main reasons that I believe we should be considering as we develop curriculum:

  1. A focus in coursework on rigor and creative problem solving skills as opposed to rote learning (high level blooms vs low level)
  2. Experiential learning through projects, externships and internships and service opportunities
  3. Assignments that require students to grow beyond the classroom and apply their learning to real world applications.

As educators we tend to balk at the idea of real world applications, of getting our hands dirty.  I can’t tell you how many instructors I work with still demand 50-100 question exams when the truth is that no employer is going to ask them to take a test.   That said, the best part about the majority of online programs is that your students are usually taking them to grow in a field they have already gotten started in.  Think about it, instead of asking an RN to BSN student to write a paper about key needs in professional development at his institution, why not actually have him develop and lead a professional development experience for his peers and coworkers and evaluate his effectiveness?  Instead of asking a teacher to identify leadership needs and talk about how to fill them in her institution, why not actually assign her to design a solution to a problem and own a project at her place of work that makes that solution real? 

Wouldn’t that be rigorous (remember our definition of rigor from before) and wouldn’t an employer prefer to see it on a student’s resume?

I just want to leave you with one final thought before you delete this email.  In the article, Beth points out that, after college, she just needed a chance to prove that she could be a valuable employee.  She just needed somebody to take a chance on her.  If we make an effort to include relevant, real-world experience as a part of our curriculum, she would have been be one step closer to having the proof before she graduated. 

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