Nearly 50% of students today leave college without earning a degree. The data suggests students drop out from lack of funds, interest, mentorship, and real world relevance. Even at elite private universities where student completion rates soar to over 90%, everyone is in reform mode, trying to find the best education students need for the complex, fast-action webby world they are inheriting. Some want to argue that online course offerings (including those offered free by universities like MIT, Harvard, or Carnegie Mellon) are the answer. Well-constructed online courses do work exceptionally well in certain fields, especially technical ones that yield to individualized, challenge-based learning. But skills-acquisition is no substitute for a college degree. Just ask companies like Google and Apple. They may pick the cream of the online student crop for by-the-job, outsourced tasks that come without benefits or job security, but typically they do not look at those with online diplomas for future innovative corporate leaders.
So how do we change higher ed to better fit an interconnected, globally volatile, politically vexed, and ever-changing world? It’s time to transform the focus, mission, and rhetoric of liberal arts. Surveys of employers reveal, over and over, that what they prize most in future managers are excellence in written and spoken communication, critical and creative thinking, an ability to collaborate across distances and cultural differences, breadth of knowledge and experience that takes students out of localism and provincialism, basic technical skills, quantitative literacy, and an ability to be flexible and take risks in changing environments. That’s a great syllabus for the new liberal arts. In a world where, according to the U.S. Departments of Labor and Statistics, people change jobs four to six times, it’s the highly specialized skills that become obsolete fastest.
The opposition of "liberal arts" and "vocational education" carries with it a lot of residual 19th-century class snobbery as well as 20th-century quantitative bias. In the real world of the 21st century, there aren’t "two cultures." We need both. As a cartoon circulating on Facebook would have it, "Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea."
To get us thinking about the possibilities of real educational reform, I propose a Start-Up Core Curriculum for Entrepreneurship, Service, and Society (hokey, yes: SUCCESS). Neither a Great Books common core (which, however profound, rarely connects to a student’s specialized major) nor the duck, duck, goose model of distribution requirements (where students are left to make coherence from a welter of rhetoric, statistics, art appreciation, natural science, foreign language or other course offerings), the Start-Up Core Curriculum isn’t just about content mastery, but about putting deep knowledge along with basic skills into practice to address intractable real-world global problems.
A Start-Up Core Curriculum would take up the first two years of college. The first year would center on a thematic cluster of problem-based courses. This is a model already in place at many institutions of higher education—including my own, where a subset of our first-year students take FOCUS, an alternative to distribution requirements. Let’s say our liberal arts topic is "Global Health Disparities." Students take interdisciplinary team-taught health-focused courses designed to span the required general education areas (humanities, arts, social sciences, and computational and biological sciences). Weekly meetings with all faculty and students aim at connecting intellectual dots.
That’s a great start. But it’s expensive and not as entrepreneurial as students today might want it to be, so let’s push the model further. To save costs, a SUCCESS program might include a mix of large lectures and online courses (in areas such as introductory statistics, foreign language, HTML, or another programming language where such learning works). Both formats would be supplemented by small group meetings with peers, teachers, TAs, and sometimes guest non-academic experts. Seminars would be devoted to the Great Books where students would grapple together with thinkers on issues of general social health and welfare, from Socrates to Amartya Sen, and would read philosophy, history, and literature along side classic economics, revisionist behavioral economics, and actual business and management classes. How do you come up with a cost-benefit analysis and an actual, strategic business and workflow plan that embodies Sen’s ideas? Sen insists we account for the intangibles that enhance or cripple our lives (inequality, life-expectancy, infant mortality, or disease). How do you design those into the bottom line of a business, a nation, or a globally connected world?
You don’t really know how to answer that question until you’re responsible for solving a real-world problem—and not in the safe confines of a classroom but in the actual "real world." That’s in the second year of the SUCCESS program. Simultaneously contributing to the world, and learning from it, an engaged practicum second year also addresses the very real issue of "sophomore slump" (where the drop out potential runs highest). It is also a targeted, engaged alternative to the typical year-abroad experience which even for the lucky 14% of current college graduates who can afford it is often unlinked to coursework, future careers, or any real-world experience abroad. Living with other American classmates in a dorm, cordoned off from the international scene, is the antithesis of the kind of engaged, targeted experiential year of "general education" that I’m advocating. A second-year in another country consisting of entrepreneurial, service-oriented, practical work application of a new liberal arts core could be the most eye-opening, expansive experience of a lifetime. And you do not need to go abroad to learn how to participate in and contribute to actual, lived work in the "real world" of diverse cultures and populations given the extremity of the gap between rich and poor in America. Many, if not most, colleges and universities are in locales where radical income and health disparities exist a few miles or even blocks away.
Students could be placed in local nonprofits, community organizations, small businesses, and after-school programs similar to those programs pioneered by Paul Farmer and Partners in Health, not only in Haiti but at home, too. Students would lend their new expertise, deep thinking, communication skills, leadership and collaboration skills to local organizations desperate for help in financially strapped times. In turn, students would learn more about the urgencies of deep and broad knowledge, the importance of general and specialized education, the necessity for computational and social networking skills, and the imperative for hard work and true dedication—not all of it well remunerated—than any classroom could begin to instill. Some version of tuition dollars could flow to hosting organizations for mentors working with SUCCESS professors in designing, guiding, and evaluating the students’ contributions.
The students’ core web programming skills would be drawn upon as each student contributed to developing a closed collaboration space for the cohort dispersed physically but in online communities. They would share ideas, resources, and support (as well as insights into IP, privacy, security, and other 21st-century communication issues). They would decide which part of their online sharing should be public and how best to communicate new ideas to reach targeted audiences, in some cases with splashy lush corporate-style graphics, in other cases with plain text messages accessible via low bandwidth and basic mobile phones. Each student would also be building her own online portfolio, a far more convincing demonstration of employable skills than a GPA.
Even if a student were not to go into one of the many fields related to global health, such a foundational first year and experiential second year models how the "wisdom of the ages" can help us deconstruct some of the "real world" cant of our era. The real world itself needs some serious critical thinking.
The SUCCESS model I’ve sketched is intended to inspire new ideas about how we can redesign the siloed, hierarchical, pre-professional U.S. research university that was designed in the late 19th century. With a backlash against higher education in full swing, what better time than now to take up this challenge? As Thomas Friedman has recently suggested, "big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary." Let’s get started.