Monday, Sept. 1, 2014

Timothy R. Clark: A new kind of university: Modular degrees for our children's needs

By Timothy R. Clark, For the Deseret News

Published: Fri, May 9 12:00 a.m. MDT

 If you were to build a university from scratch in 2014, would you create traditional academic degrees in psychology, history, English, classics, humanities, or political science? Maybe not.

If you were to build a university from scratch in 2014, would you create traditional academic degrees in psychology, history, English, classics, humanities, or political science? Maybe not.


If you were to build a university from scratch in 2014, would you create traditional academic degrees in psychology, history, English, classics, humanities, or political science? Maybe not.

That may sound like heresy to the purist ear, but we have a higher priority today — how to educate our children to earn a decent living and compete in the 21st Century. It’s important to preserve our academic disciplines for the sake of research, culture and the perpetuation of civil society, but it’s past time to disrupt our current educational model to serve our children.

A few months ago, the Global Economic Forum issued its “Global Risks 2014” report. The second highest risk cited in the report, measured in terms of likelihood and impact, is “structurally high unemployment and underemployment.” The report goes on to make this recommendation: “The generation coming of age in the 2010s faces high unemployment and precarious job situations, hampering their efforts to build a future and raising the risk of social unrest. In advanced economies, the large number of graduates from expensive and out-moded educational systems — graduating with high debt and mismatched skills — points to a need to adapt and integrate professional and academic education.”

Now consider a few additional facts identified by the Society for Human Resource Management about Millennials (Generation Y), the cohort that is now passing through our institutions of higher learning.

Between the ages of 18 and 25, they change jobs an average of 6.3 times.

Only one in 10 considers his/her current job a career.

They have significantly diminished loyalty toward institutions.

They have witnessed a wave of college students precede them who are burdened with debt, many of whom still face unemployment after graduation.

They will make up half of the U.S. workforce by 2020.

It is a different world today, and a particularly sobering picture for a young person who wants to go to college and not fall victim to the ever widening income gap that separates the highly skilled from everyone else. In many cases, it’s not enough to earn a college degree, especially if that degree doesn't equip you with employable skills.

The answer is not just a matter of churning out more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates. We need to educate more STEM workers to meet the increasing demand, but not everyone has the motivation or aptitude to succeed in a STEM field.

So how might we “adapt and integrate professional and academic education.” We can leave the professional degrees alone, but how do we help the sea of graduates in the social and behavioral sciences, the arts and the humanities? A so-called liberal education is a beautiful thing until you sit down for a job interview and the recruiter asks you what you can do. “Well, I can think, analyze and express myself.” No doubt those skills are critical and often lacking even in professional graduates, but most employers still need marketable skills immediately, especially in small organizations.

Perhaps instead of organizing degrees by discipline, we consider a modular approach in which a non-professional degree requires a certain number of academic and applied learning modules.

For example, if such a build-your-own modular degree were to require 10 total learning modules, a student might complete five academic modules in English, geography, philosophy, economics and music. Then add to that five applied modules in accounting, digital media, editing, entrepreneurship and computer programming. Of course the student wouldn't gain the same depth of skill in a single field that a professional degree would confer, but the student would have marketable skills and present a much stronger value proposition to a potential employer. We need to keep in mind that employers inhabit the applied world. They have real-world problems to solve, and given the landscape of the future, we are doing a dis-service to our college graduates if they are ill-prepared to help solve those problems when they graduate.

Henry G. Jackson, the current president of the Society for Human Resource Management, the largest human resource organization in the world, recently stated, “The differentiator for the newest entrants to the workforce will not be what you know, but what you can do with what you know.”

Timothy R. Clark is founder of TRClark & Company, a leadership development organization. He earned a doctorate from Oxford University and recently released a new book, “The Employee Engagement Mindset” from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.

1. Liberal Today
Murray, UT,
May 9, 2014

Yes, but won't focusing on STEM take away time in school for liberal/socialist indoctrination?

2. Macfarren
Dallas, TX,
May 9, 2014

Dr. Clark, an author, consultant, and Fulbright Scholar at Oxford, was (far more than the average student) an blessed beneficiary of a liberal arts education. He of all people knows that the 'modular' education he describes is the exact underlying purpose of required core curriculum at all colleges, generally regardless of major specializations. While there is always room for improvement at every institution his article seems to be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

While technologies and marketplaces continue to evolve, the fixed needs for all of tomorrow's employees regardless of profession still continue to include: the ability to communicate well, the ability to analyze, the ability to work independently as well as collaborate, and the ability to adapt and develop new skills. A ha! That is precisely what a liberal arts education or a required core curriculum is designed to do. On top of that, add whatever specialty you desire.

This article seems to introduce a solution which is looking for a problem.

The real problem is not our college degree system, it is a national economy that has stalled due to the policies of our current presidential administration

3. Mr DL
Bel Air, MD,
May 9, 2014

Universities today offer degrees such as a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, and Bachelor of Fine Arts. What we need is a Bachelor of Trades degree. This degree would require 4 years of combined instruction and apprenticeship experience. We could look at community colleges or Universities to offer the degrees, with majors in plumbing, HVAC, electronics, mechanics, maintenance, and telecommunications. Young men and women could hold their heads high as they completed a college degree that had marketable skills and a healthy starting salary.

4. Macfarren
Dallas, TX,
May 9, 2014

@Mr DL

What you describe is a called a vocational school, which are perfectly fine if that is type of instruction you seek. And frankly, many plumbers make more than some degree holders. That aside, universities were never created just to certify someone as eligible for a specific trade.

5. Star Bright
Salt Lake City, Ut,
May 9, 2014

I guess they won't be offering "Women studies" "Black studies, etc., etc. A nowhere degree!