Make College More Practical?

State universities across the country are now trying to come up with new policies to beef up graduation rates. Perhaps college is too impractical to induce students to finish their programs, suggests an editorial in the Jackson Sun, a Tennessee newspaper. This is debatable.

According to the piece:

Reports indicate that by the end of the decade, 60 percent of top jobs in Tennessee will require a college education. One study estimates that more than 90 percent of future jobs that would support a middle-class standard of living will require some post-secondary education. But in some Tennessee communities, only a small percentage — 7 percent in Jackson-Madison County — of public high school graduates are prepared for college-level work. Clearly, the colleges have their work cut out for them if they expect to raise the number of college educated Tennesseans to anywhere near the projected level of demand for college educated individuals.

What this says to us is that higher education needs to get its head out of the clouds of academia and into the world of business, industry and the professions. Students must be shown and taught the practical application of coursework they are required to take. Many good-paying jobs require less than a four-year degree. But they do require strong oral and written communication skills, math skills, critical thinking skills, knowledge of real-world applications of coursework and exposure to working-world experiences. Students must be able to see the economic light at the end of the education tunnel, not just a pleasant walk along ivy-covered walls.

Wait, why?

Because many jobs require college does not mean that the way to induce more people to complete college is to focus on jobs. It’s true that holding entry-level positions in management areas of “business, industry and the professions” usually require a college degree, but that’s just because these professions require people who are intelligent, creative thinkers, and hard workers. America’s (or Tennessee’s) best jobs are not restricted to those whose college careers are largely vocational.

Furthermore, the goal here is to improve college completion. One of the most important reasons students drop out is because it’s too expensive. And arguably America’s most practical institutions of higher learning, those most targeted toward “the world of business, industry and the professions” are the for-profits. And 78 percent of students in this sector never graduate.

So let’s be careful here. Practical sounds good. It sounds responsible and efficient and reasonable. But there’s no evidence forcing colleges to focus on jobs will actually prepare students for jobs, or help them complete college on time.

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