Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Utilitarian Education and Obligations of the University

A school's obligation to prepare technically competent graduates applies to all fields, but there are additional obligations for schools that promote their programs to serve learners who are attending specifically to attain qualifications that lead to employment. Those obligations, coupled with changing public expectations of higher education have catalyzed a round of regulatory activity in the US and investments in educational reform/disruption. Although much of the systemic reinvention of higher education has focused on outcomes measured in terms of employment, there are additional expectations of a university educated graduate.

In my last posting, What should others expect of our learners, I asserted that a university education ought to extend beyond technical competence. I believe this on its face, whether or not the technical competencies have market value or contribute to the employability of a graduate. I am thinking now though about competencies that have clear and easily quantified utility that is recognized in terms of market value. Honestly, technical competence should be assumed along with any degree, but what seems to have captured national attention and is increasingly defining the value of a college or university education is the production of technically competent and employable graduates. I want to take some time to sort out some of my thoughts about utilitarian education. It seems to me that although all education has some focus on utility, there is a spectrum on which “market value” can be place. On the end of the spectrum in which "market value" is emphasized it becomes seen as the principal purpose of funding, providing, and receiving an education; and I am concern that it becomes the de facto mark of an educated person.

Certainly we expect graduates to attain a reasonable level of technical competence in their chosen area of study. This clearly is a legitimate expectation whether the field is history, theology, music, business, or engineering. For example, employers expect engineering graduates who can design products and systems, calculate the strength of materials, make judgments about safety, and apply principles of physics and mathematics to their craft. As users of engineered products we expect as much as well and it is the job of colleges and universities to prepare qualified and competent engineers. Good technically competent engineers are essential to economic progress (competitiveness) and tend to be in demand and employable at good market rates. We could probably say similar things about graduates of business, nursing, physical therapy and many other programs including carpentry and plumbing as well. In fact, we can say this about any program that meets a market need. Competent practitioners with marketable skills will be able to find employment and contribute to the economy. That is, their practice will have utility and there will be a market to exchange practice for pay. Some competencies are more easily monetize than are others, but are not necessarily more valuable to a society that values democracy as well as commerce.

This happy state does not though happen “naturally” without good and responsible practice on the part of colleges and universities. It is my belief that colleges and universities have obligations in serving their principal constituents - particularly if they are accepting public financial aid funds while doing so. Although the institution's obligation to prepare technically competent graduates applies to all fields, there are additional obligations for schools that promote their programs to serve learners who are attending specifically to attain qualifications that lead to employment in specific utilitarian fields. The school must
  • ensure that it is offering educational programs designed to provide current and relevant competencies for practice, (design relevant curriculum)
  • inform prospective students about the relationship between market demand and supply for skills, so the prospective student can make an informed decision about the use of their time and their investment in tuition, (protect the interest of incoming students)
  • exercise judgment regarding the number of students they accept and graduates they produce to maintain some sort of market value for their graduates (reasonably protect the interests of their alumni, tax payers who support education, and creditors who expect repayment of loans)
  • practice educational techniques that effectively facilitate and support learning (engage in sound and effective pedagogical practice)
  • accurately represent, as well as possible, the level of competence the graduate has exhibited in selected skills through assessment. (certify knowledge with accuracy, integrity, and fidelity)

Good colleges and universities will meet these obligations because of genuine interest in the well being and development of their students, their graduates, society, and the academic discipline. There has been a lot of discussion during the past 3 years about the failure of some colleges and universities to responsibly perform according to the points listed above, the failure of many colleges and universities to perform at scale, and the failure of a whole sector to control costs and provide affordable education options. These topics have been well documented in popular media, have served as subjects of numerous reports, and I think are the catalyst for many events including,

Individually these are potentially disruptive events, but taken together they form a pattern that necessitates creativity and change, which is the most obvious silver lining. Creating high access to affordable career and professional education is critical to the healthy development of any society. The for-profit chain universities figured out some mechanisms to provide access at scale, but as a group did not do so cheaply or while meeting some of the obligations listed above - sparking a round of regulation. Public and private nonprofit colleges and universities have generally failed to scale for a variety of reasons and by extension have not adequately controlled costs - sparking rounds of criticism and existential questions. Alternatives that break from the traditional package of college and university services are evolving quickly - sparking a round of experimentation and frantic media attention (not undeserved in many cases). We see these efforts in the form of OER content, MOOC consortia, and third-party education service providers. We are also seeing evidence of traditional colleges and universities embracing some of the alternatives to meet their own career and professional education program needs; some with promising outcomes.

Now back to the question about what others expect of our learners and the assertion that it is more than technical competency that is rewarded by the job market. Although I think that the “utility” banner has been successfully waved and has catalyzed a lot of the change agenda, there is an underlying understanding that there is something more to education than the first paycheck after graduation. This is reflected in the Pew Research Center’s 2011 “Is College Worth It?” study, in which it was reported that
Just under half of the public (47%) says the main purpose of a college education is to teach work-related skills and knowledge. Another 39%, however, says that college is an opportunity for students to grow personally and intellectually. A little more than one-in-ten (12%) say the time spent at college should be dedicated to both pursuits.

Although a majority of respondents indicated a strong career and training function, a significant percentage pointed to other personal and intellectual developmental objectives as the priority of a university education. The surprising bit to me is that so small a percent indicated that colleges and universities should pursue both objectives. Something that I do want to pursue later. In any event, it is obvious that colleges and universities are expected to address work-related skills and knowledge, which are almost certainly easier to describe, measure and monetize than the more general personal and intellectual development objectives of higher education. I neatly think of work-related skills and knowledge as utilitarian education and other personal and intellectual developmental objectives as those leading to a liberal education.

Why is it though that utilitarian education seems to be getting virtually all of the attention in the United States? I do think that the confluence of circumstances - issues around affordability, heavy public financial investment in higher education, a call for additional investment, the prolonged economic downturn, and the more or less easily quantified nature of career and professional education may bias us to focus almost exclusively on career and professional education, elevating their status and reducing measures of educational success to simple market transactions.

Having acknowledged the importance of career and professional skill development, how it tends to be measured and valued, and having noted some types of obligations colleges and universities have, it is worth thinking about what else we expect from college and university graduates and return to the 39% of the public that indicated that the University should be a place in which personal and intellectual development objectives ought to be prioritized. It is my feeling that the argument for liberal education that the 39% might make will be relatively subtle and appeal to interests that speak to a common good rationale of higher education, which seems to have lost significant ground in the United States during the past 40 years.

What should others expect of our learners?

Next Generation Learning Challenges

Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training

Is College Worth It? College Presidents, Public Assess, Value, Quality and Mission of Higher Education

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