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Is the purpose of college to get an education or a job?

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Career-Technical Education

The 2015 SXSWedu Conference and Festival is underway in Austin, Texas. SmartBrief Education editors are on the ground, bringing readers coverage of the discussions and happenings at this year’s show.

Is the purpose of college to get an education or a job?

Debate over this question is not new, but a new answer is needed, said Jeffrey Selingo, professor of practice at Arizona State University, during his presentation, “Redesigning the Overworked Bachelor’s Degree.”

Selingo, a former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, envisions a redesigned bachelor’s degree that addresses the need to provide students with a broad education, yet also provides them with the practical skills they need to land their first job in the 21st century.

Under a new model, programs would provide students with skills in areas such as problem solving, decision making, critical thinking and analytical reasoning — skills some employers say are lacking in today’s college graduates, Selingo said.

Over time, many concepts have begun to strain the “foundation” of the bachelor’s degree, Selingo noted — from the need for remedial courses to the advent of double majors — while the structure of the degree itself has remained basically unchanged. However, this model no longer is aligned with what is needed today and for the future, he argues.

While students once told researchers their motivation for enrolling in college was to get an education, Selingo said the tide since the recent recession has turned with students now saying their number-one reason for attending college is to get a better job. So how can today’s colleges and universities address this goal?

In addition to the traditional pathway provided by a four-year residential college, Selingo proposed new pathways that would incorporate a year of work experience into the four-year model, offer more entry and exit points for students to access higher education, or allow students to more easily “toggle between” work and school.

While some schools may be forced to make such changes to survive, Selingo explained that a number of higher-education institutions already are piloting innovative alternatives to the bachelor’s degree that are designed to better meet the needs of today’s economy.

Georgetown University, for example, has designed a four-year, combined — and integrated — bachelor’s and master’s degree pathway, while Arizona State University is working on an eight-major pilot of a project-based degree, which allows students to connect classroom and real-world learning in a meaningful way, he said.

The Minerva Project, through which students spend four years in different cities participating in both coursework and experiential learning, is another example, Selingo noted, while another project at Stanford University Design School envisions an open-loop university where students accepted to the school have access to six years of higher education to use at any time in their lives, he said.

“To me, these various pathways through higher education are going to serve the needs of the economy much better than the one-size-fits-all pathway that we have today,” Selingo said.

Katharine Haber is an education editor for SmartBrief, writing and editing content about a variety of topics in education.

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