“Practical” College Education

With the economy in freefall, many are worried about the employment prospects of college graduates. Related to this, some Americans wonder if students are actually learning the skills they need in college to even get jobs.

Marybeth Gasman writes in Diverse Issues in Higher Education that:

Johnny Taylor [of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund]… recently [took] some corporate leaders to an HBCU campus to meet with faculty about producing African-American graduates who could potentially work for the corporation. During the conversation, the corporate leaders described the skill set that they hoped to see in graduates. The faculty members were not pleased at all to have curriculum needs dictated by the corporate executives. Taylor was surprised at the faculty members’ reaction and was disappointed that the corporation decided to recruit from a nearby historically White institution as a result of the cold reception from faculty at the HBCU.

Within the HBCU context, the idea of pushing a more practical curriculum often reminds people of the historic debates between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. Too much emphasis on practical preparation over liberal arts study can limit intellectual opportunities.

Well yes, but perhaps more importantly for the discussion, it can also limit actual employment opportunities.

This anecdote is exasperatingly vague, but I suspect that the corporate leaders did not recruit from the “nearby historically White institution” because that institution was more vocationally oriented.

The most important skills for obtaining and succeeding in a professional job are a willingness to work hard and the ability to think critically. People go to college precisely to develop critical thinking skills, often through utterly impractical pursuits like literature and philosophy.

So sure, recent graduates are having trouble getting jobs this year, but that’s not because they don’t have the right skills; that’s just because the jobs aren’t there.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer