Modernize the Undergraduate Curriculum

Long considered a guarantor of economic prosperity, American higher education in the 21st-century has attracted more scrutiny and ridicule for its continued surfeit of underqualified graduates that become sinking costs upon hire. The remainder will largely fight succumbing to the growing imbalance between workforce-ready graduates and a workforce that cannot readily use them.

Charles W. Eliot confronted a similar dilemma saddled between Industrial Revolutions over a century prior, when labor demanded discipline and therefore effective management, leadership, insight. But mostly management; efficiency mattered above all else. This inspired Eliot to develop a distributive framework of courses that mimicked Frederick Winslow Taylor’s taxonomy of distributive labor (whose economic benefits proved largely illusory, leading several industries to discard “Taylorism” as fraudulent.)

But a distributive curriculum that had at one time satisfied a post-mercantile, pre-industrial economy has become untenable in today’s post-industrial, mixed market specializing in knowledge and services unfathomable even to the most discerning minds several generations’ prior. As bold as Mr. Eliot’s approach to higher education proved to be, the creative destruction that had revolutionized his era would neither diminish in speed nor scope in those thereafter, soon antiquating Eliot’s “most […] useful piece of work” that widely persists today. And at prohibitive costs.

But adaptability has rarely been the raison d’etre of an unreactive higher education system, whose cumbersome and costly cafeteria-style approach to undergraduate education slips further real-life economics, spurring some to shun college for more immediate living-wage careers. Others have bypassed the traditional curriculum in favor of online platforms such as Coursera to enhance their marketability in a fraction of the time and cost. High schools have even begun streamlining entry-level pathways that permit teenagers to possibly circumvent the post-secondary market altogether, avoiding exorbitant costs in return for lackluster employment. And a mound of research and anecdotal testimonies exposes the current undergraduate curriculum as little more than an unwieldy gauntlet of hodgepodge courses—some required, many not—for students to endure for a four-year minimum sentence before graduating into uncertainty and debt.

Higher education’s continued clumsiness is a result of numerous factors, including inescapable cost-disease, but not least of all its continued refusal to tailor student enrollments to job market forecasts, its fetish with niche courses that are questionably relevant and certainly overpriced, and its ironclad mismanagement of two distinctive systems:  the four-year’s siloed system trafficking in more theory than utility while overseeing the bachelor’s degree continued decline in value; and the two year’s helter-skelter approach increased remediation, lower retention rates, and declining enrollments.

And one needn’t be a seasoned educator to understand as much. Peter Berkowitz, from the now-defunct The Weekly Standard, appropriately criticizes the disjointedness of the traditional undergraduate curriculum that bewilders students with a “mishmash of unconnected courses” devoid of a core philosophy. Forbes’ George Leef insists that the “lip service” administrators pay defending this system mocks the cohesion and consistency essential to its efficacy. But the most incisive criticism comes directly from students, both current and former, many of whom consider their post-secondary experiences as an onerous mastery of “The Art of College Management”—a punchline that has lost much its former glibness.

Yet an expansive curricular overhaul is required, already having begun with various post-secondary institutions adopting a more efficient and effective pathways approaches to career success. But operating costs of even these reforms will eventually require private business and industry investments and governance, determining both the content and the delivery methods best suited to economic success. What Georgetown and other notable universities and colleges have implemented provides the philosophical basis; more critical, however, is the establishment of an integrative curriculum that will bring to fruition a nobler, more career-oriented vision that most academic institutions squandered in the wake of the 2007-08 economic crisis, when their leaders could have realigned their curricula more purely to industry trends and standards. Instead, most sat on their hands while the federal government cornered the student loan market, resulting in a 40 percent debt increase among borrowers and whose daily high-water marks inch closer to $2 trillion. Meanwhile, influential industries as technology, health services, and finance continue to starve for suitable talent.

Higher education governances need to acknowledge that their institutions serve wholly for career preparation—the development and mastery of skill-sets imperative to any industry’s success and to any individual’s self-fulfillment. The value of an education ought to reflect its economic utility; the “well-rounded” rationale of students requiring multiple semesters of largely unproductive elective courses has lost its allure, and the continued falsehood that career preparation is somehow incompatible with a liberal education—and therefore inferior to it—deserves censure in any serious conversation.

Any career, trades included, can outfit its academic programs with general education courses tailored to the industry or sector into which graduates enter. Such integration will save students and professionals substantial amounts of time and resources while organically streamlining the learning process to forge a stronger correlation between efficiency and efficacy—hallmarks of a sustainable enterprise. And such integration reframes the well-rounded angle: students can still address peripheral issues germane to their field but that go beyond the physical workplace. Beyond naysayers’ myopia, too. Workers’ rights, technological impacts on human labor, corporate accountability, professional development, and engineering ethics represent just a handful of universal applications, not to mention those applicable to specific industries. Action-based learning would flourish on account that instruction would come directly from industry, not an academic intermediary with no stake in and little knowledge of business, economics, and innovation.

This more integrative curriculum would be consummately transactional:  as a successful business employs the ideas of its workers, so too could this new approach patent the ideas of its future professionals now prone to participate in an education centered more on relevancy than loyalty.

While numerous academic institutions have partnered with certain brokers to outfit students with relevant skills in more expedient fashion, American higher education should not have to piecemeal what should be naturally housed entirely under its purview. Doing so makes more economical sense, certainly far more than the existing conditions have proven otherwise. Third-party firms responsible for educative functions count as part of the resulting bloat of administrative functions outsourced beyond its location but somehow not counting in the bottom line.

If educators continue as gatekeepers to industries and businesses about which so many know so little, and yet decry so much; and if administrations continue to defend an undergraduate system proven largely to be defunct, then higher education will continue hemorrhaging credibility. And by folding higher education into American industry, the onerous Department of Education can finally dissolve into oblivion, with the retentive Higher Learning Commission in tow. Industries can then slip into being the accrediting bodies that common-sense commands.

Administrations and educators must concede to the economic realities from which too many have apparently worked to insulate themselves, and hand industry the reigns to steer a lost system on to a more dignified path. Doing so would not signal defeat; it would ensure sustainability that is critical to higher education and to the market justifying its existence.

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Contrarian to the Common

Former college educator with 15 years’ experience split between public community college and public four-year state college. My commentaries address matters germane to higher education, sometimes beyond.

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