I’ve never really trusted my powers of prediction, but recent weeks have seriously eroded any confidence in my ability to forecast the future. Some recent prophecies have proven particularly wrongheaded.
I thought, what with high rates of inflation, a depressed stock market, and lots of reports of crime, the Democratic party was about to face a red wave. Wrong.
I also thought the Russian military was far stronger than it was. Wrong again.
I even thought that Ukraine was far more dependent on NATO, and especially US support, than it actually is. As one of the writers I follow, Noah Smith, writes: “the U.S has donated just 38 of the vaunted HIMARS rocket launchers out of an arsenal of around 400 — and these are operating without the air support they were designed to work with. No fighter jets, no modern Western tanks, no long-range rockets for the HIMARS, no ballistic missiles, none of the top-line air defenses.”
In other words, Russia is getting whipped by Ukraine, not NATO.
All told, I’ve recently received a number of humbling lessons.
Why such a poor record of prognostication and judgment? I’m not sure. Some of it reflects the news sources that I read or the Texas or academic environment in which I live. But I suspect that a lot of my misjudgments reflect my reliance on intuition, and, as I was once told, “intuition is bias.”
Our hunches, instincts, and gut feelings often lead us astray.
Why, then, should my thoughts about the future of higher education be any more accurate? My answer is that these are grounded not only in my personal experience, but in ideas that others generously share.
One of the writers who I’ve found especially insightful is Harvey J. Graff, an expert on literacy who also writes widely on colleges and universities. His pieces, which appear frequently in Inside Higher Ed and Times Higher Education, focus on a series of issues that our campuses should take more seriously. Let’s look at three.
1. Our students have changed, but our institutions have not adapted sufficiently to this reality.
Non-traditional students now make up a majority of undergraduates. The new student majority consists of commuting students, part-time students, working students, older students, family caregivers, transfer students, reentering students, international students, and students with disabilities.
Yet our institutional calendars, course schedules, and campus services haven’t sufficiently adjusted, even post-pandemic. We need to serve these students better.
But the real problems go deeper, and can’t be solved simply by calendar or course schedule tweaks or by delivering more services online. Too many students feel disconnected, unsupported, and directionless. Campuses need to do more to cultivate a sense of belonging and connection with faculty, classmates, and the campus itself.
I think it’s fair to say that our offices of the dean of students, student life, and student affairs need to do better.
These offices bear responsibility for a remarkable range of campus functions, involving student conduct, student emergency services, and student activities. Student engagement, students’ health and wellness, belonging and inclusion, the residential experience, student activities, orientation, Greek life, recreational sports, civic engagement, and parent and family relations fall under their purview.
Those responsibilities, I would submit, are nearly as important as campuses’ academic functions. Just as colleges need to promote students’ cognitive development or disciplinary training, these institutions need to nurture their physical, social, emotional, personal, and ethical growth. But performing these functions well is even harder than meeting students’ intellectual needs, especially given the diversity of student backgrounds, personalities, interests, and goals.
Still, there are steps that institutions can take to enhance outside-the-classroom life:
- facilitate more interaction with faculty, including emeritus faculty.
- offer more workshops on topics of high student interest.
- aggressively encourage students to participate in intramural athletics and less formal forms of organized exercise.
- engage in more proactive outreach through a program of student ambassadors
- create or sponsor more special interest or themed groups and activities
- do more to measure the effectiveness of student life activities by monitoring the number of students reached and assessing their satisfaction.
Our institutions also need to strengthen advising, both academic and non-academic. Students are more likely to persist, graduate, and express satisfaction if they receive more guidance in identifying a career direction, selecting a major, and choosing courses. They also need more career counseling and ready access to psychological or learning services.
Yet even that’s not enough. As Professor Graff has observed, growing up has always been hard, but it’s now hard in novel ways.
Today’s young people achieve the markers of full adulthood much later than in the recent past. Most won’t marry, bear children or secure a stable job until the age of 30 or even later (if then). This means that they must navigate a prolonged, over a decade long, period of late adolescence and emerging adulthood that lacks a clear roadmap and well-defined expectations and rules.
Certainly, they need more help than in the past in entering the workforce. Older assumptions suitable for one’s parents or grandparents no longer work. Well-paying jobs increasingly require applicants to document skills and experience that many haven’t acquired. Our institutions need to do much more to ensure that undergraduates do gain and verify those skills and get some real-world workforce experience, whether through an internship or a rough equivalent, such as a relevant project they’ve undertaken.
At the same time, sexual norms and Ideas surrounding intimacy are shifting, and social institutions, including colleges and universities, need to do more to ensure that undergraduates better understand and respect each other’s personal needs and rights.
In addition, today’s extraordinarily diverse campuses expose students to an exceptionally wide array of classmates, ideas, lifestyles, and modes of self-expression. But in such a varied environment, it’s easy to slip up, misspeak, commit gaffes, and offend. Consequently, it’s more important than ever for colleges and universities to help students learn how to interact in complex environments with people with different values, priorities, cultural styles, and expectations.
In this context, campuses need to organize discussions about cross-cultural communication and workshops on professional behavior and etiquette. Students need places to turn to for advice, and campuses should respond by making mentors and student ambassadors widely available and accessible.
2. Campuses need to offer more of the kinds of courses and learning experiences that today’s students need
In addition to traditional discipline-based lecture and discussion courses, many of today’s students would benefit from other kinds of learning experiences, which must count for credit and towards a degree if they are to attract enrollment. These should include:
- Academic success courses, to develop students’ study, close reading, and writing skills and to help them with academic planning, degree mapping, and major selection.
- Clinicals, practicums, and studio classes that provide opportunities to apply what they’ve learned in authentic environments.
- Expanded experiential learning opportunities, including internships, mentored research, project-based learning, field experiences, civic and service learning, and study abroad.
- Communities of inquiry and solver communities, learning communities that research, examine, and formulate solutions to pressing problems.
- Maker spaces, collaborative workspaces where students can develop a project with support from mentors and advisers.
- Interdisciplinary courses or clusters that tackle a broad topic or issue from multiple perspectives, preferably from comparative, multicultural, transnational, points of view.
- Tough topics courses that grapple with timely, difficult subjects such as equity, race, sexuality, or social justice, academically, not ideologically.
- Applied mathematics classes aligned with particularly fields of study, involving data analytics, statistics, database and spreadsheet manipulation, and quantitative and survey research
- Sweeping survey courses on such topics as big history (the sweeping history of the cosmos, Earth, life, and humanity), ethics, religion, cognitive distortions, social science methods and thinking, and world art, literature, or music.
- Far-reaching humanities courses that speak to existential and developmental issues such as death and bereavement, applied ethics, identities, love and intimacy, and tragedy.
3. Colleges and universities could do more to better prepare students for post-graduation life.
The future won’t replicate the past, and therefore we need to prepare students for that brave new world that’s only beginning to emerge.
We might, for example, consider creating opportunities for students to explore the challenges of young adulthood, including the changes that are taking place in the life course, the job market, and relationships and provide more guidance and support as they undergo the tangled processes of social and emotional maturation. How about offering classes in adulting?
We also need to do more to prepare our graduates for a rapidly shifting job market. Even if the specifics aren’t well-defined, at least some of the economy’s future contours are clear. Future success will hinge on acquiring certain digital skills and soft skills as well as specific disciplinary skills and content knowledge. Whether in specific academic classes or non-credit workshops, let’s find ways to help students acquire the skills that will give them a leg up in the job market.
We know what those soft skills are. They include leadership skills, conflict resolution skills, social and emotional skills, and high-level communication skills. Computational, cross-cultural, contextual, and design thinking are highly prized. Employers of all kinds expect a college graduate to be able to demonstrate professionalism and an ability to problem-solve, multitask, manage time effectively, and work in teams. Let’s do more to intentionally cultivate such skills.
Then there are the 21st century competencies that are highly prized, beginning with research skills and the ability to communicate in a variety of formats and modalities, but also involving data analysis, logistics, and project management. These are skills that our campuses should do more to develop.
I’d also like to put a plug in for professional identity formation. Beyond specific job skills and responsibilities, every profession has its own core values, ethical standards, self-image, behavioral expectations, and understanding of the profession’s past, present, and likely future. Campus pre-professional centers in such areas as the arts, business, computer science, health care, information technology, public policy, and science should make a point of helping students form a professional identity.
When I say that 21st century colleges and universities shouldn’t simply replicate their 20th century predecessors, I don’t simply mean that they should expand their course offerings to include more classes in cybersecurity, data science, emerging technologies, game design, neuroscience, robotics. or sustainability — though they should Nor am I merely referring to changes in enrollment management, advising, financial aid, or transcripting.
The most significant transformation will involve altering curricula, the student experience, and the faculty role – the areas that are the hardest for institutions to change. But colleges and universities need to change for three simple reasons:
- Too few undergraduates ever earn a degree.
- Too many feel disconnected and unsupported and directionless.
- Too large a proportion flail and flounder for years after graduation.
Institutional change won’t require us to throw out the baby with the bathwater. We don’t need to embrace predominantly online delivery formats or replace scholar-teachers with course mentors or downgrade the liberal arts. But must make students’ well-rounded development, a sense of belonging and connection, better advising, and much higher rates of proficiency and student success in high demand fields of study our North Star.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.