The higher education we need

This is the first of a series of posts on higher education. As many of you know, in our 2006 A New Agenda for a New Michigan, we argued to recreate a high prosperity Michigan, maintaing a quality and agile higher education system was the #1 priority for state policy makers . We have been doing a terrible job at it. What is most concerning is that Governor Snyder is now the third consecutive governor on a bi-partisan basis over more than a decade that has made higher education one of the state’s lowest funding priorities. Big mistake!

I want to start with the big picture. What kind of education do we want from our public higher education institutions to prepare students for the economy of the future?  Software entrepreneur Bill Wagner, in an insightful column, laid it out quite well. He writes:

My perspective on education is firmly rooted in being a business owner: What type of education is needed for a long and successful career? What do businesses look for in a successful new employee? By considering these questions, Michigan policymakers can create a strong future.

The country, and especially Michigan, seem stuck in the mode of thinking of education as a means to a job, as a vocation. The problem with this attitude is that the hot jobs change frequently. Preparing people for one job, and one job only, creates a temporary and rigid work force.

… If you’ve experienced any kind of career growth, or enjoyed any success you know the answer: Your education must prepare you for a long career that meets constant changes in the job market, and supports your own growth.

The only constant during a life-long career is that you’ll need to adapt.

The important question for our education system: Are you prepared for all the changes that may come in the future?

… In order to grow companies and our work force, our education system needs to prepare people for an ever-changing world. Preparing for today’s hot job is the road to irrelevance. Getting a broad, rich education that lays the foundation for becoming a triple threat is the path to a very successful career. We hire software developers that have deep knowledge of computer science and software engineering. But they must also have broad knowledge of other disciplines so that they can grow to accept new challenges as we continue to grow.

Wagner is right on in his observation that there is an increasing orientation towards higher education as vocational education for technical and professional occupations. Preparing for a first rung on the ladder job seems to be the orientation of way too many students, business leaders and policy makers. Not smart!

That kind of training (it really can’t be called education) doesn’t serve the student well because it leaves them unprepared for the almost inevitable time they lose a job or even see their occupation made obsolete by technology or globalization. And it doesn’t serve the community well either whose prosperity is increasingly tied to the human capital of its residents. The most prosperous places will be those with the deepest pools of agile talent. And that means far more than the narrow skills needed to get available jobs today. (For more on the kind of skills we will need see my previous post on rock climbing.)

Developing this broader pool of human capital is what a comprehensive, but decentralized system, of higher education institutions can do best. It is the kind of system Michigan built better than almost anyone in the 20th century, but now after a decade of continuing declining investment is jeopardized.

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