Ignoring declining enrollments

The students will come back, what else can they do?

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by Mike Meyer

In American higher education the problem is declining enrollments and disappearing campuses. At the bottom end, community colleges, the decline is significant and accelerating. The numbers are becoming frightening but few people talk about it other than administrators who’s annual funding is tied to growth outcomes. But even that talk is more about working around the numbers to pretend that nothing important is wrong.

The following quote is included in Five Insights from Davos by Lynda Gratton:

There is wide agreement that we need a massive push to prepare people for new jobs and skills, but right now, no one is doing enough to prepare people for those future skills. As one Nobel Prize-winning economist ominously remarked, “Now school does not mean you will learn; learning does not mean you will have the skills for the labor market; and having the skills does not mean you will have a job — it’s a more complex route.”

This sounds as if it is an indictment of current higher education that is unable to handle the complexity of this new route. Where else will the people in need of up-skilling and re-skilling go the get these new skills?

As one person remarked, “It could be an ugly transition.” Another reminded us that in a recent survey in Asia, more than 40% of respondents were concerned about the impact of technology on their jobs. People spoke of the need to shorten pathways to new skills and for leaders to create a positive narrative for workers. But beneath this sentiment was a real fear of complacency — and a feeling that it is hard to create the sense of urgency that will be required to make such a colossal shift.

A major part of the problem is the rapid paradigmatic shift planet wide. People no longer want nor need what they wanted and needed before. A major aspect of this is flexibility. People want and need flexibility that allows them to maintain families, other interests, while working many more years. The work force is getting older and many of us see no opportunity or even desire for retirement.

Higher education, particularly in America is an industry built to feed the old corporate structure. It has worked to broaden education and expand opportunities for minorities and women but, never the less, nods to the traditional privileged groups in Western Civilization. It also is too closely tied to the declining white male structure while not tied closely enough to what is facing the people lost and confused with how to proceed.

In essence this is illustrated by the pretense that what is happening in higher education is for the student while students are refusing to talk about where they are going and how they think they will get there. Credentialing is what higher education is all about. The credentials were what made the money and still do, to an extent. But that appears to be ending. There is nothing replacing it but jobs requiring skills that most people do not have.

A big part of the problem in higher education is the reluctance to move beyond simple credentialing and the criteria of success. Credentials are easy to count and can be counted more heavily for minorities and women in non-traditional female jobs. You don’t have to worry about what happens to them as they got a credential so game over. You won! Congratulations and have a good life.

Students, even young ones, are sensing a certain lack of integrity in institutions maintaining this as their operating ethos while American media is painting the picture of 20–40 million jobs lost in the next ten years. At the same time the jobs being talked about are too difficult to understand and/or are focused on self directed creativity. How many people know how or can even learn how to do those jobs? I don’t know. Do you?

By cultural standards everyone can learn anything and do any job if they really want to. They just need to be motivated.

Anyone with some years in education knows the story of those who really can’t and knows the sad story of those who work really, really hard and still don’t make it. We’ve become far too confused in thinking that everyone is equal and to think otherwise is, demeaning or somehow, racist. The inability to achieve the necessary skills is an equal opportunity employer. The reasons are diverse but exist varying by individual.

How do we educate or reeducate 40 million people needing new jobs while motivating and training the regular post high school population for the same jobs that have gone missing. Are they all becoming scientists and creative designers?

The failure to talk about this in our communities is not encouraging. This will need to change. I think that living minimum wages and Universal Basic Income are where this is going but that won’t happen without a lot of work. First we need to know what is really needed and what to people really want?

Thanks to Stowe Boyd at workfutures.org for bringing these sources together.

Educator, CIO, retired entrepreneur, grandfather with occasional fits of humor in the midst of disaster. . .

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