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Words are powerful things. When deployed clearly and effectively, they can propel new ideas forward and motivate social change. Unfortunately, they also can bring more confusion than clarity and lead reformers down the wrong paths. We run that risk with the use of the word “skills” in the current debate about learning beyond high school. Getting our words and images right is particularly important as we address societal and educational inequity and as we begin to rebuild the post-pandemic economy.
A recent survey of Gen Z teens sponsored by the nonprofit corporation ECMC Group found that “61 percent believe a skill-based education (e.g. trade skills, nursing, STEM, etc.) makes sense in today’s world.” The survey also found that a slight majority (52 percent) believe they can “succeed in a career with education other than a four-year degree.” An article highlighting these findings presented the two paths — four-year colleges, on the one hand, and career and technical education, on the other — as competing and utterly opposed options.
On the surface, the survey findings seem unsurprising and very sensible. Who doesn’t want a credential that is based on learning important skills? And Gen Zers are correct that some credentials other than a traditional bachelor’s degree can, in fact, properly prepare them to secure and succeed in good entry-level jobs. That is why, as we shift from emergency mode to post-pandemic recovery mode, many commentators now call for expanding such short-term training programs, especially to help older workers whose jobs disappeared during the pandemic.
So, what is the problem with the language we are using to advance this movement to create a wider array of credentials and professional entry points? I worry that describing only certain credentials as “skills based” is profoundly misleading. It presents a false choice — particularly to first-generation students — that will intensify rather than diminish economic and social inequity.
It’s simply untrue that only programs such as “trades, nursing, STEM, etc.” help students hone skills. In fact, four-year degree programs across a wide array of fields help students develop very important skills — intellectual skills including analytic thinking, evidence-based reasoning and complex communication. Well-designed bachelor’s degree programs also teach very practical skills such as time and project management, research design, data analysis, and digital design.
Contrasting programs that are “skills based” with those that aren’t just doesn’t make sense. In fact, as noted economist Anthony P. Carnevale (an Inside Higher Ed opinion contributor) and his colleagues at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce suggest in their report “The Overlooked Value of Certificates and Associate’s Degrees,” “Ultimately, the most valuable education over the long term is the one that provides the most marketable combination of specific and general skills” (emphasis added). Yet unfortunately, many Americans seem to prefer either-or to both-and thinking.
The stakes are very high. We simply cannot create a system of learning beyond high school in which some people — more likely to be low income, Black, Latino, or Hispanic — are “tracked” into programs that fail to prepare them for short-term and long-term success. As my colleague Jamie Merisotis (an Inside Higher Ed opinion contributor) has compellingly argued in his recent book, Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines, we need educational programs that cultivate a broad skill set — one that enables people to do the work that only humans can do as technology takes over more and more aspects of work.
As he notes, “Human work draws upon three sets of skills that everyone needs to develop to a greater or lesser extent: people skills, problem-solving skills, and integrative skills.” The good news is that, while these skill sets are broad and not easily mastered, we can nurture them in many ways. And, we needn’t—in fact, shouldn’t —choose between narrow technical skills and these broader people skills. We can and must provide both throughout our credentialing system.
As we work to improve that system, two vital reforms are needed, and they should go hand in hand.
First, we need to create more on-ramps to good jobs by making shorter-term credentials more widely available. These programs must develop skills both sufficient for good entry-level jobs and robust enough to prepare workers to continue their learning, either on the job or in subsequent educational programs. All workers must also be learners, and they should have opportunities to hone higher-order analytic, interpretive, integrative, and evaluative skills — the durable skills that will enable them to thrive over the long term.
Second, we must also do a far better job of designing and redesigning traditional four-year degree programs — both in the general education portion and in the majors. Throughout bachelor’s degree programs, we must embed both practical and intellectual skills that align well with today’s world of work. For too long, we have focused too exclusively on content knowledge and “coverage,” downplaying the need for new foundational skills geared to the digital economy.
Institutions of all sorts can now use research from firms like Emsi or Burning Glass Technologies to help align their programs to the changing needs of the labor market. Recent research from Burning Glass, for instance, provides valuable insights as to the specific skills — some familiar and some very new — that today’s economy rewards. Many of these skills can easily be embedded in traditional degree programs in liberal arts and sciences.
Educational research suggests most students do better with this integrative, both-and approach. Knowledge acquisition and skills development go together. One can’t develop research skills, for instance, without some depth of knowledge. One doesn’t learn to write in the abstract; the mechanics of grammar can be learned, but no one can write effectively without some knowledge of the subject that they’re addressing. At the same time, simply amassing facts about a particular field, with no practice in applying that knowledge in the real world, will leave one ill prepared for life and work.
That sort of either-or thinking is the problem. We need new words and images, a new language that can help us build a reform agenda that avoids these false dichotomies. With such an agenda, we can create robust learning environments across all kinds of credentials and institutions, enabling all students to develop the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.
Debra Humphreys is vice president of strategic engagement at Lumina Foundation.
This article was originally published in Inside Higher Ed.