How Private Colleges are Approaching the Challenge of Educating Students for the Global Workplace

It’s not easy to be the leader of a small, private college these days. Over the last decade these schools have been under tremendous pressure from seemingly every direction. With high (and rising) tuition, and a centuries-old liberal arts curriculum, these institutions have endured criticism about their value proposition to students, as well as the relevance of their curriculum in today’s rapidly evolving, global workplace. These concerns were highlighted when Sweet Briar College announced in 2014 that it would be closing its doors.

Private, four year colleges have an average cost (tuition and fees) of just under $25,000 per year according to the National Center for Education Statistics 2013/2014 report. This is by far the most expensive education a student can pursue. And while students feel prepared to tackle the challenges of their new jobs, their employers aren’t as confident that new graduates are ready. A study by the AACU in 2013 found a substantial gap between students perception of their own readiness and employers assessment of the same skills.

So how are colleges adapting their programs to better prepare students for the evolving landscape of work? Small colleges are embarking on innovative projects which are showcasing their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. And beyond the addition of new programs and new ways of thinking about teaching and learning, these schools are also finding that the liberal arts curriculum, despite its age, is a surprisingly good platform for preparing students for the modern workforce.

Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts, is one of the twenty oldest private colleges in the United States. Tracing its roots to 1784, with a charter signed by John Hancock and Samuel Adams, Becker has a long tradition of educating students using the liberal arts model. Yet it is just this tradition that has been criticized as being outdated and impractical in our technology-enabled workplace. So how does an institution like Becker tackle updating its curriculum while maintaining the core values upon which it was founded?

Dr. Robert Johnson, president of Becker, is passionate about the future of learning, and how Becker is adapting to preparing students for a whole different world when they graduate.

“We are preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technology that hasn’t been invented, so it’s necessary to change how we think” says President Johnson, “we have to value learning over knowing.”

To Dr. Johnson, while that means tactical changes like focusing on learning the skills of the entrepreneur, it’s also about teaching global citizenship.

“If you are an educated person on a planet with over 7 billion people then you are privileged, and you have a social responsibility to go out into the world and leave it better than you found it.”

To teach global citizenship, Becker incorporates three key pillars into their curriculum:

  • Academic Excellence
  • Social Responsibility
  • Creative Expression

Becker’s goal is to take the best of their existing program, and infuse it with a global, entrepreneurial perspective, to give students the skills they need to adapt to change, and evolve along with the diverse and dispersed workplace they will become a part of.

In contrast to Becker College’s position as one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the United States, Hampshire College is one of the youngest. Founded in 1970, Hampshire was itself an innovative project which was created by a committee formed by the presidents of Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Amherst College, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to rethink the practice of liberal arts education.

“Hampshire was created to be disruptive” says current president Jonathan Lash.  In the spirit of that intent to try new things, Hampshire eliminated traditional constructs like majors and grades. They allowed students to select interdisciplinary fields of study, and, guided by an advisor, put together a unique curriculum based on their own interests. Rather than receiving grades, Hampshire students receive extensive written and verbal feedback from their professors to help them learn and grow.

The founders were less concerned about job training, and more interested in trying to invent a new way of approaching teaching and learning. The focus was entirely on the student, and supporting that student as they pursued answers to broad questions about the world. Yet this lack of focus on job training had a surprising result. In 2012, Forbes released a list of the 20 best colleges for entrepreneurship, and there, alongside MIT and Stanford, was Hampshire College.

While Hampshire was not trying to create a business school, they seemed to have done so by accident. “It turns out that the skills are fabulous skills. They are the skills of the entrepreneur,” says Lash. “Our students see change as opportunity.”

Hampshire and Becker are great examples of a renaissance in the image of the small, liberal arts institution. While they received the brunt of the criticism for being high priced purveyors of impractical learning experiences, they have proven to have the ability to not only demonstrate success through the outcomes of their students, but to be more agile than their larger competitors.

The global marketplace is demanding more from new graduates than ever before. Employers are focused on skills such as teamwork, creativity, and communication as core competencies for the modern workplace. And as the marketplace requires these new skills, colleges are challenged to build programs that foster these capabilities while still providing the core learning experiences that students need and expect from higher education.

Katy Tynan

Katy Tynan

Katy is an author, entrepreneur and consultant working at the intersection of people and technology. She is a thought leader in the conversation about how work is changing, and has been advising businesses and educational institutions on how to leverage technology for operational efficiency, growth, and strategic advantage for over 20 years.