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Higher education, jobs, and skills in the Trump era


The shock still hasn't worn off from the November 8th election, which seems like a twisted hybrid of the Hangover and Alice in Wonderland, made real and imposed over the entire globe's new reality. For those of us living in Wisconsin the past several years however, which some have called "a laboratory for a national conservative strategy," it's not too hard to envision what the future may look like, particularly in the arena of higher education policy.

Now before I sketch out some initial thoughts about what we may be seeing in the next 4 years, the push towards vocationalism and having students, parents, and college educators think more deeply about careers is not a particularly bad thing. With the skyrocketing price tag of college and the evolving, competitive jobs market graduates encounter, sending students to college with nary a word about the world of work and advice about career options is indefensible.

But like with many things, it's easy for the pendulum to swing too hard to the extreme, resisting that middle point where college - whether a community college or a research university - is discussed in terms of jobs, intellectual and moral growth, and the public benefits of higher education. Unfortunately, the latter two goals of higher education have become the neglected stepchild in conversations about college, with angst about jobs and employers' unmet needs dominating the discussion.

Figure 1: Editing by the Walker administration of the University of Wisconsin's mission in the Wisconsin budget

Here in Wisconsin, debates about higher education policy have become inextricably linked to workforce development, such that they now are two sides of the same coin. College is primarily about jobs training in the Badger State, whether we're talking about a 1-year technical diploma in a technical college or a 4-year bachelor's degree in biology from a research university. As the state thinks about chipping in some dollars in the next biennial budget, on the heels of $500 million in cuts the past 4 years, it is only under this condition: “to invest in the university in a way that enhances career-oriented instruction to help students and employers looking for jobs and workers in high-demand fields.”

So given this context, and the early indications that Governor Walker will be playing a role in shaping some of the Trump administration's policy positions, here's some reading of the tea leaves:

1. Dominance of the skills gap frame. Framing of the challenges facing the higher education sector in terms of "skills gaps," where economic growth is stymied by employers inability to find and hire skills workers. The blame for this state of affairs, where companies cannot grow and must move locations due to poorly educated workers, is laid completely and solely at the feet of public education, whether K-12 or the colleges and universities around the country. While some are beginning to acknowledge the role of employers' investing in workplace training, the broader culture in cultivating things like work ethic and lifelong learning skills, the conversation will remain one of finger-pointing at the public higher education sector.

2. Advocacy of alternative credentials and for-profit institutions. One response to this situation is to advocate for alternative credentialing such as certificates and badges, obtained by non- and for-profit institutions that offer competency-based programs. These can be the vaunted coding boot-camps we hear talked about advocated by both parties, "grit" badges and short courses in critical thinking, post-graduate employability certificates, and so on. Of course, the efficacy of these courses and whether employers actually view them as meaningful remains the domain of anecdote with no empirical research on the matter, but we'll see them being pushed as preferred form of post-secondary education. With the new Commander-in-Chief being well versed in running for-profit higher education institutions, or something like that, it's not too far of a stretch to see that this will be a central plank in his platform (if it exists) for the nation's postsecondary education system.

3. Focus on programmatic solutions, but overlooking the role of teaching and learning. One of the bright spots of the skills gap mania has been the increased attention on how poorly articulated career pathways are for many students, whether they be high school, technical college, or university graduates. Solutions to the lack of career counseling and vocation-centered instruction throughout the educational spectrum include investments in internships, expansion of programs in high-demand fields (e.g., software programming) and clearly laid out career pathways. These are steps in the right direction, but if they remain programmatic solutions without investing in the learning opportunities that take place within these programs, they will remain expensive and ineffective solutions. Instead, growth in such programs must also be accompanied by investments in teachers who are conversant with hands-on, experiential teaching methods that cultivate diversified competencies such as technical knowledge, critical thinking, and teamwork. Such teaching is hard and most postsecondary faculty are not trained to teach at all much less in using cutting-edge active learning methodologies and instructional technologies.

Some excellent examples out there of a more balanced approach to innovation include Georgetown University, which is experimenting with different models of instruction and credentials, but with a focus on the learner and a commitment to a multi-disciplinary, broad-based education. The sector shouldn't be satisfied with the status quo, and needs to explore innovations in curriculum and instruction, but with the students short- and long-term best interests in mind. This means asking the question: Will this program help a student get that first job upon graduation, but also provide them with the intellectual, moral, and technical skills that will enable them to get that 5th job ten years from now?

Of course, it's hard to not overlook other aspects of programmatic and structural reform in the sector, which in Wisconsin have included the evisceration of shared governance, weakening of tenure protections, and the over-arching goal to alter how postsecondary institutions are run - to reflect those of a private business with executives who have the "flexibility" to hold under-performing (i.e., lazy faculty mowing their grass at 2pm on a workday) staff accountable to performance standards.

So these are just a few of the priorities I anticipate seeing come out of the Trump administration in the next few months. I hope I'm wrong, and that the policy proposals set forth will reflect a more balanced focus on careers, student learning, innovation, the multiple purposes of higher education, and a healthy respect for the teaching profession as one of the jewels in the crown of our nation's skilled workforce. But after the past few years in Wisconsin, I'm not optimistic.


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© 2015 by Matthew T. Hora

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