Report: Broader Skills Best for College Grads

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As the federal government begins to nudge the higher education system toward greater accountability for student learning, a report released here last week outlines the skills college graduates need to be successful in the global economy and suggests how colleges can impart them.

Whether students majored in art history or nursing, their degrees should signal that they have a firm grasp of critical thinking, teamwork, and written communication, as well as an understanding of civics, ethics, and different cultures, according to the report by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. The Washington-based organization represents 1,100 colleges, many of them focused on the liberal arts.

The report, issued Jan. 10, was the work of the leadership council of Liberal Education and America’s Promise, an initiative sponsored by the AAC&U. The panel included college presidents, business and nonprofit leaders, and policymakers.

The learning outcomes embraced in the report have generally been the hallmarks of a strong liberal arts education. But the report argues that all students can benefit from them, particularly because workers tend to switch jobs—and, in some cases, careers—more frequently than ever. Employers, it says, don’t want “toothpick” graduates: those whose focus is deep but narrow. Instead, they want students with broad skills that can help them adapt to the changing job market.

“It really matters very little if students can perform well on multiple-choice tests,” said Wayne C. Johnson, the vice president of university relations for the Hewlett-Packard Co., the Palo Alto, Calif.-based technology company, and a member of the council. “We need more of them to be able to communicate, analyze, think critically.”

While the report focuses the bulk of its recommendations on colleges, K-12 schools must work toward similar learning outcomes, said Carol G. Schneider, the president of the AAC&U. “This really is a framework for P-16,” she said, referring to the span of education from prekindergarten through a four-year college.

Guidance on Assessment

The report also recommends that college educators create diagnostic, interim, and final assessments, specific to students’ chosen fields, to give them a sense of their progress. But it cautions against relying too heavily on standardized tests.

Such tests were endorsed in a report released in August by the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education. The panel, established by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, made long-range recommendations for the nation’s colleges ("Department Seeks Input on Higher Ed. Panel’s Suggestions for Change," Aug. 30, 2006.)

The report says that standardized tests outside the curriculum are, “at best, a weak prompt to needed improvement in teaching, curriculum, and learning. … The tests themselves don’t necessarily point to where or why the problem exists.”

It suggests that curriculum-based assessments might do a better job of identifying students’ strengths and weaknesses. Standardized tests could supplement those efforts, the report says.

Joni E. Finney, the vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, based in San Jose, Calif., called the report’s cautious language surrounding standardized tests “a bit schizophrenic,” given its emphasis on learning outcomes.

“The fact that you need to assess these outcomes, and the fact that it needs to be comparable, is a step they didn’t take and probably should have,” she said.

Vol. 26, Issue 19, Page 14

Published in Print: January 17, 2007, as Report: Broader Skills Best for College Grads
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