Higher Ed needs to be imploded and rebuilt. Here’s how we start.

I wrote most of this some time ago, and have written other stories on Higher Ed, but I felt the need to finish this as a support and supplement to what I read here:


According to a survey released today by PayScale, which provides data on salaries, and executive development firm Future Workplace, nearly 90 percent of all recent college graduates considered themselves well prepared for their jobs. Unfortunately for young employees, only half of hiring managers shared that opinion.
More than half of all companies (60 percent) said new grads lacked critical thinking skills and attention to detail (56 percent), while 44 percent found fault with their writing proficiency, and 39 percent were critical of their public speaking ability.

Of all the places to begin to address this problem in higher ed, there is one place that serves as a great starting point.

General Education or Liberal Arts Education is at least 36 units (more, at some institutions) of a 120 unit Bachelor’s degree — a typical course is 3 units in the semester system. So, more than a quarter and almost a third of a student’s academic courseload is not determined by the actual academic department, much less by a prospective employer or anyone in a practical field.

Gen Ed includes:

6 Units of English Composition and Literature
3 Units of Public Speaking
9 Units of Socio-Behavioral Sciences (Psychology, Sociology, etc)
6 Units of Math
6 Units of Science (Usually 7 in reality)

If Gen Ed fails to do what it purports, why should we retain it? More importantly, rather than trying to decide what should comprise Gen Ed from the outside, why not leave that primarily in the hands of those who control the major level content of the Bachelor’s degree, rather than in the hands of institutions craving higher enrollment numbers at nearly any cost?

If we focus on the issue from a student perspective, there is one issue which is of utmost importance: Time is money. Loans must be repaid.

Gen Ed consumes a limited Financial Aid resource. If we are really concerned about “educational access”, we must look at the length of a degree and how it is structured. By eliminating Gen Ed, we are:

  1. Removing student loan overhead for students considering graduate or professional school.
  2. Creating space for additional units for internships or actual work experience.
  3. Allowing students to graduate earlier and enter the field earlier with less student loan debt to recoup.
  4. Allowing students to figure out as quickly as possible whether the degree they’re currently seeking is the one for them, as many will complete their Gen-Ed before ever doing anything in the field or taking their first major coursework. No, Gen Ed usually does not help students decide on a major (and can distract and derail them from a major they do want) and it certainly does not do so as effectively as allowing the student to confront the realities of the field or the content in the major coursework in which they think they are interested or might be interested.
  5. Employers say students fail at things Gen Ed is supposed to improve. Gen Ed is not currently effective in preparing students with the “soft skills” its advocates claim it produces. It’s become clear that the current regime does not effectively inculcate leadership, critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, innovation, work ethic — nor could it ever. Good mentors and internal drive are the seeds of those traits. Compulsory Gen Ed only occasionally involves the former and usually prevents the latter (as few students would take “western civilization” courses if they were not forced).
  6. Those “soft skills” mentioned above are primarily developed when one is doing something voluntarily. The entire notion of Gen Ed is infantilizing and pretentious. Additionally, these skills are usually very contextualized depending on the industry or the job. In other words, Gen Ed cannot possibly be as effective training those skills as academic departments or those within the industry. Collaboration and teamwork as a firefighter is only partially transferable to collaboration and teamwork as a software developer.
  7. This is more of a criticism of education generally, but grades and degrees do not really measure learning, creativity, or leadership. They measure attendance, obedience, and sometimes, if time permits, knowledge. This is especially the case in Gen Ed curricula.

What most employers say they want in prospective employees isn’t a given because they took Calculus 3 or Biochemistry. In technical jobs, the base competencies are only a minimum. Personality, culture fit, creativity, adaptability, and other “soft factors” matter tremendously for actually being hired and useful for a company. Again, these are traits Gen Ed is supposed to help develop:

Professionalism (86%), high-energy (78%) and confidence (61%) are the top three traits employers say they are looking for in new hires. Kathy Harris, managing director of Manhattan-based executive search firm Harris Allied says these first-impression traits are the most critical for employers to prepare for as they all can be evaluated by a recruiter or hiring manager within the first 30 seconds of meeting a candidate.

The core of this is they’re looking more for leadership ability (which is always in shortage for humanity — entrepreneurship can be thought of as leadership in a specific niche), critical thinking, innovation, and the ability to collaborate well and connect meaningfully with other humans. Gen Ed proponents consistently make the argument that these are reasons we should retain Gen Ed — that it teaches those things that purely academic, theoretical, or technical courses might not. It should be clear to most at this point that Gen Ed does not.

Imagine this simple proposal to a 4-year university student: “If you maintain a full time courseload, a GPA of 3.0, and complete the degree path required by your department within three years, we will waive the remaining Gen Ed requirements not considered worthy of retention by the academic department and graduate you.”

First, the negative consequences of this for higher ed enrollment numbers and therefore funding are substantial. I am certain that there are provosts and VPs who bury their head in enrollment numbers weekly if not daily to whom this is insane, and you will frequently notice them oppose such measures because of their immediate result, not because they have really thought out the long-term benefits and implications of such a change.

If an institution did what I am describing, they would certainly have to significantly restructure, fire a lot of employees, and hire a smaller number of employees in other areas. Student Housing companies and restaurant/shop proprietors feast on the aid students receive to develop posh housing and collaborate with other builders and local government officials to have entire sections of town dedicated to “the college life.” Economies in college towns would therefore be reduced as total student enrollment is reduced due to finishing more quickly.

In the short term, these things are likely unavoidable if the conduits of federal money and well-meaning parents are no longer pumping the same amount of money into these institutions and their surroundings. But the outputs of the system become better, especially for those who do not come from wealthy families.

Imagine the student loan savings and how much more quickly students will decide on a major, go to grad school, or get meaningful work experience, and therefore how much more quickly they have a meaningful career or job.

The way this would work in practice is by eliminating compulsory gen ed, and allow departments to work out which courses from other departments they wish to keep (some Gen Ed requirements are satisfied by natural pre-reqs, such as math and science pre-reqs for STEM degrees). But the above would represent a workable proof of concept to benefit students and get students to graduate sooner. It gets us on the road to a more innovative system of higher education whose goal is no longer to do what we’ve always done, but to think about how we can do what we are not currently doing.

The reality is the entire structure of education must change, as mentioned in “The New 95” higher education theses. However, we must start this process somewhere. The antibiotic injection to cleanse the system of its decaying portions must occur somewhere and using some mechanism.

If we don’t reform higher ed significantly in the next decade, the results will be far worse than the housing crisis of 2006, and will take even longer to clean up.