Workplace Skills and Liberal Education – AAC&U Panel

It was my pleasure to present on a panel, “Workplace Skills and Liberal Education: Equity and Access . . . and Quality and Depth” at the national AAC&U conference. Organized by Saul Fisher, Executive Director for Grants and Academic Initiatives and Visiting Associate Professor of Philosophy at Mercy College, I also shared the table with Donna Heiland, Vice President and Special Assistant to the President at Emerson College, Nancy Hensel, President, New American Colleges and Universities and Julia Brookins, Special Projects Coordinator, American Historical Association.

Saul’s charge was for us to stimulate discussion and thought about the following questions:

  • What is at stake in the meeting of practical and liberal education in higher education?
  • How might different institutions approach the meeting of practical and liberal education?
  • How do such approaches play out in the cultures of teaching and learning among faculty, students, and administrators; the allocation of resources in advancing curricular areas; programs to build retention and graduation; formation of the ‘whole’ student; or other domains still?

These themes recurred throughout the conference in many panels and presentations.

Paraphrasing my remarks, I opened by asking the audience to keep in mind the great diversity of the American higher educational system, which is really a collection of different institutions with unique missions, populations, cultures, structures and histories. We have to be mindful when situating institutions in geography, among competitors and collaborators, within systems and regions, as part of broader disciplinary efforts, and within the time frame of students’ academic journeys. All of us in the community college world are acutely aware that we might be a destination or a way station for our students. Bear in mind, too, that approximately 45% of all undergraduate students in higher education in America are at a community college.

With an underlying question running through the AAC&U conference as one of value, I see the “value proposition” being tested at my college, Wilbur Wright College, every day – by students and their families, by political and community leaders, by fellow educators, and by everyone who works at the institution. We are driven by mission and are acutely aware that our effectiveness has a direct impact on the lives of our students, who number in the thousands. Resources are always scarce at community colleges but the consistent focus on mission – the clear prioritization of what we do – makes difficult choices easier (though not less painful).

Wright College is one of seven community colleges in the City Colleges of Chicago system. Under Chancellor Cheryl Hyman’s leadership and the support of Mayor Emanuel and many others, CCC has been working to demonstrate the value of higher education to an ever-widening number of stakeholders. Value is not just an economic proposition about jobs – it is a commitment to putting student success at the center of what we do. The CCC Reinvention effort highlights an institutional prioritization of students success and completion. Success may be an associates degree, a job, or transfer to a four-year institution and a baccalaureate.

Wright College is a Hispanic serving institution with more than 9,000 students taking credit-bearing courses. We also have an Adult Education program and a Continuing Education program. We are located in north-west Chicago and have two campuses. Our students are not wealthy. The cost of education – in credits and in time – figure prominently in their decision-making. City Colleges of Chicago tuition costs students $89 per credit. Unemployment in Chicago is over 10% and is much higher for subgroups, such as teenagers and those without college degrees. Our students are not concerned about what is and is not called a liberal art by academia. Instead, they want courses and programs that are relevant and can help them navigate a challenging world. They want useful education. In that sense, all of our education has a practical component.

To make connections between community college programs and life beyond the community colleges more explicit, CCC started a College to Careers initiative to focus curricula on expected areas of job and career growth in the greater Chicago area.  At Wright, a designated IT hub for the system, that charge has meant developing new courses and programs in the information technology field. Whenever possible, we look to establish stackable credentials – certificates and clusters of skills that have value in the world of work and help students progress to a degree. We want and urge all of our students to complete degrees and advance, but we know that many will not seek four-year degrees. We have to meet their needs and wants as best we can.

The C2C effort has also required us to open up our academic processes to industry partners. We are very fortunate to have engaged and willing faculty as well as supportive and generous partners. Even so, it is a challenging and difficult process. Industry experts do not have familiarity with the inner workings of higher education and there are deep differences in culture, language, and expectations. To bridge these differences, the importance of Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) cannot be underestimated. They can serve as both educational goals and workplace expectations. SLOs can also serve as very helpful components in students’ own personal narratives.

And while I did not end my remarks with a formal summary – time was short and my fellow panelists had many interesting things to say – I would have wanted to remind the audience of the urgency facing higher education. Government support for higher education has been steadily decreasing for decades. This is not the result of partisan politics. It is the consequence of political leaders losing confidence in higher education. We – all of higher education – have not been driven to make the hard choices to improve access and control costs. There is little evidence to support the claim that the graduation of each and every student is our top priority. And with student debt and tuition rates steadily increasing, we face the challenge of losing the confidence of more students and their families, too, unless we make deep changes and our commitments clear.

David Potash

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