In 'PreparedU,' A College President Argues for Mixing Liberal Arts And...

Digital Learning in Higher Ed

In 'PreparedU,' A College President Argues for Mixing Liberal Arts And Workplace Readiness

By Jeffrey R. Young     Oct 3, 2017

In 'PreparedU,' A College President Argues for Mixing Liberal Arts And Workplace Readiness

The generation of students attending college today just aren’t that impressed by traditional markers of authority—and they’re not coming to campus to gaze up at wise leaders on a pedestal (well, at least according to surveys). And that’s one reason the president of Bentley University, Gloria Cordes Larson, invites students to call her by her first name.

It’s a move that President Larson—I mean, Gloria—sees as part of the university’s push to make higher education more of a hybrid experience between immersion in traditional liberal arts and a focus on practical skills and internships. Bentley is a bit unusual, in that it is an undergraduate institution focused on business. But Gloria Larson argues in a new book that all of higher education should embrace this mixture, and move past the notion that a college has to focus on either liberal arts or practical workplace preparation. The book is called PreparedU: How Innovative Colleges Drive Student Success.

EdSurge recently talked with Larson about her new book, and about what her research shows today’s students are looking for from higher education. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

EdSurge: You say that today’s students “challenge professors like no generation has before them." What do you mean by that?

Larson: This is a generation that grew up almost having adult status, even as kids. They've always been encouraged to speak their minds, to be authentic, to offer their opinions in the classroom—even in K-12—and certainly by the time they get to college. This is not a shy group. They really encourage one another in their thinking, and they encourage the adults around them. I found it to be a very flattened, democratic higher ed these days as opposed to when I went to college, and you sort of sat at the feet of scholars. And frankly, I think the faculty encourages that. They encourage that kind of open discussion where faculty can push students for their perspectives and students are willing to push back and offer their opinions. And I think that leads to that kind of healthy conversation.

And that transfers into the workplace, where they do obviously respect the titles that those ahead of them have, but at the same time, I think more and more workplaces are much more heavily into participatory democracy and encourage opinions because that's what leads to enhanced innovations.

And you encourage students there to call you "Gloria"?

I do.

I don't know if a lot of college presidents would do that, or even professors.

Well, I'll tell you why. It's not just because I'm so enamored with them, which you already know I am. It's also because it's a way to encourage them to approach me on campus and to have conversations with me. As opposed to seeming like a trip to the principal's office, by calling me "Gloria" from right out of the starting gate, I find that if I'm walking around campus, I'm grabbing something for lunch in our cafeteria, the kids often walk up to me and will tell me what they're learning in the classroom. I throw a lot of events at the president's house on campus, and I find that they're very open to conversation, not a bit intimidated. And I think that intimidation is lowered significantly by asking them to call me by my first name. I also think because I'm a non-academic president and I didn't grow up sort of through the traditional academic ladder, that I don't find the title particularly necessary.

Many professors I talk to are concerned that higher education is becoming too career-focused. What would you say to someone who looks at your book and the approach that you're applying at Bentley and says this is too much emphasis on what employers might want rather than what has made the academy what it is?

The point that I've tried to make in the book is that we shouldn't have this sort of tug and pull between traditional arts and sciences and traditional professional focus, whether that be business or engineering or something else. That it should be an "and," not an "or." At the same time, we give an equal measure, equal importance to arts and sciences. And so they have those life-long learning skills. They have the things that we hear from employers they desperately want with strengthened communication skills and collaboration skills and critical thinking.

This was born of some research that we did coming out of the recession when liberal-arts students were not getting jobs those first several years after the global recession. It's a national project we called PreparedU where we ask employers, academics, parents, and students what they thought is most needed (and more than 3,000 people responded). What we heard was a lot of confusion on the part of employers. CEOs said liberal arts are the mainstay of being able to innovate in the workplace and being the strong communicators and those who had the long-term success. Meanwhile, hiring managers were asking for actual skillsets so the kids could come in and hit the ground running, particularly as companies dropped a lot of their in-house training programs in those years right after the recession.

Our continued research over the last four or five years has made us even more certain that the better we can integrate these professional skillsets both in the classroom and through internships and other types of external opportunities for our students. Through deep, deep dives into liberal arts, we can encourage kids to double major—to learn through their analysis and through their own integration to figure out the answers to difficult problems. By combining what they're learning through the liberal arts and being able to, say, read a balance sheet.

To me it's all about a holistic education. If you're going to charge families the kind of price tags that we all do for a private college education, it darn well ought to have the ability to take your child into the marketplace successfully. But more importantly to help fully prepare them for a long and successful career and a rewarding life. And we think that there is still a place for place-based education, particularly in the United States. And that if we're going to have it, it should be the best it can possibly be. I never want what I'm arguing in PreparedU to be confused with vocational education. It's not.

There's a mention in your book about hybrid teaching. And I wanted to ask you what you meant by that because a lot of people throw around that word and everyone means something a little different.

One of the things we learned with our most recent research with Burning Glass is that the deeper you can go with this integrative set of capabilities, the more you're matching the things that today's marketplace is calling for. For example, people working in human resources are no longer purely steeped in human-resource disciplines. They have to know social media. They have to have great facility with all the latest technologies. They need analytical skills. They need to know where to find the information and how to apply it. And this is true for almost everything.

So that also connects to technology. For example, here at Bentley if you're a marketing major or majoring in creative industries and potentially going into something in the marketing or social media space, you can be proficient and certified in HubSpot technology. Now that's not because HubSpot technology will always be the technology. In fact by next year or six months later, it could be something else. It's this facility with how you gain new knowledge and new skillsets on a constant, continuing basis.

There’s a Gallup survey you cite frequently in your book, which has a statistic that I found surprising, only 29 percent of college graduates said they strongly agreed their college prepared them well for life outside college. What do you make of this disconnect?

For a long time, particularly in those early years out of the recession when there was a lot of defensiveness on the part particularly of liberal arts colleges because their kids were not getting picked up in the marketplace the way they had been in the past. (That's evened out now that employers are hiring full tilt.) But I still hear from business leaders on a semi-regular basis that they don't think all kids are equally well prepared. And it's not because they picked business to study or history to study or English. It's because they didn't have the opportunity to apply what they were learning successfully. So you could be an English and media arts major, and if you don't do an internship, if you don't have a chance to maybe bring industry on campus so that you get that corporate immersion, then you're going into the marketplace having not tried or had the chance to try any of the things that you're learning.

There are now new online options, and people can get their entire degree in business or anything else online, sometimes for much less money. Are you concerned at all about online options eating away at traditional enrollments as the costs of attending keep going up?

Place-based, particularly private place-based even with scholarships and funding available, it may not be available to everyone. And of course, I'm all about making sure that as many people as possible, as many young people as possible can avail the resources of higher education. But having said that, I think that there is going to still be in our country for many years to come a strong, strong pitch for the value of place-based.

If you have the chance in college to take on leadership positions like serving as an RA in a dorm, if you have the chance to work on a semester-long project with a professor, as I did way back when in college, it changes your perspective on everything to have that mentoring relationship. And you carry those rewards from college into the workplace. And Gallup has found that those who've had a particularly engaged, successful college experience, not that 27 percent or whatever the number you quoted, but those who are on the other side of that who said, "Wow, I was prepared," or the percentage that are prepared, so much of that comes from a rich set of engagements while they're in college. And I don't think you can get that to the same degree through MOOCs or online; although I strongly personally value online.



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