Imagine two college students who graduate with bachelor’s degrees. The first is completely unprepared for the uncertainty that exists following graduation and struggles to find and keep meaningful work. For the second, her skills, knowledge, and attitude empower her to successfully navigate uncertainty. This does not mean that she never needs to learn again. What it does mean is that her college experience has prepared her and given her the confidence to deal with whatever the future brings. I imagine that most of us would prefer to be the second graduate and think colleges and universities should develop graduates with these types of qualities.
Higher education has many stakeholders, but students and employers are certainly two of the most important ones. This makes it necessary to understand and address their needs, one of which relates to the workforce. Students expect that completing a degree will make success in the workforce more likely, even in an unpredictable future. Employers expect that a degree signifies readiness for a graduate’s first job and beyond. As noted above, this does not mean that college graduates do not need to grow after graduation, only that a degree provides them the foundation needed to do so. There is some skepticism about the value of degrees and whether they prepare students for the future. One survey found that only six in ten American adults think a college degree is worth the time and money (Finely, Aborn, Ruddy, and Miller, 2021). In another survey, employers rate college graduates as possessing low levels of proficiency for key skills related to work (National Association of Colleges and Employers Staff, 2018).
How can colleges and universities empower students to thrive in the future when it is not possible to predict it? One approach is to be more intentional about developing students’ ability to think systematically about the future. Organizations like Teach the Future and United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization Futures Literacy advocate for the importance of futures literacy. It is also possible to complete certificates and degrees related to futures literacy. Unfortunately, it is rare to see required undergraduate coursework focused on this area. Peter Bishop comments on this when he writes, “We teach about the past, don’t we? Why can’t we teach about the future” (Bishop, Hochfelder, Sears, Staley, 2016)? Empowering students to thrive in a variety of work futures requires futures literacy.
Another fruitful approach could be to strengthen career readiness support for students. Students are typically prepared to secure their first job through practice interviewing, developing resumes, and completing internships. A focus is also needed on preparing and motivating them to explore how work is changing, how they need to grow to stay competitive in the workforce, and what career paths might emerge in the future. Career readiness could be integrated throughout the student experience.
Most importantly, however, students need a foundation of knowledge and skills that prepares them to navigate uncertainty and thoughtfully engage with the future in a useful way. One method to inform the redesign of curricula to provide this foundation is to explore how multiple emerging changes may interact and what these interactions mean in terms of how graduates may live and work in the future. These changes can be identified by scanning the horizon employing a framework like STEEPLE (social, technological, environmental, economic, political, legal, and ethical) and using what you learn to construct scenarios. The resulting scenarios offer a glimpse into a future by highlighting possible differences with the present, which can help shape the curriculum in ways that empower students to thrive in the future.
Redesigning curricula in this manner avoids betting on one future, such as pushing students to complete a degree in what is expected to be the next hot field. Instead, curricula and student experiences should prepare students for multiple possible futures so they have the foundation to continue to grow and adapt should elements of these possible futures become reality. In future blog posts, I will provide specific examples of this.
Bishop, P., Hochfelder, D. Sears, J. Staley, D. (2016). “Why Historians Should Teach the Future.” History News Network. https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/162233
Finely, A., Aborn, M., Ruddy, S., Miller, K. (2021). “Is College Worth the Time and Money? It Depends on Whom You Ask.” Bipartisan Policy Center and Association of American Colleges and Universities. https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/research/BPC_Fed-State_Brief_R04.2.pdf
National Association of Colleges and Employers Staff (2018). “Are College Graduates ‘Career Ready’.” National Association of Colleges and Employers. https://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/are-college-graduates-career-ready/
© Chris Mayer 2021