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February 15, 2017

Move Over Majors, Skills Are What Students Need

Students are quickly discovering that employers already know: skills have more value than their degree. This is why it’s vital that educational institutions take a closer look at how they structure their requirements so that students are fully prepared when they graduate to contribute to the workforce.

Rethinking the Standard Structure

While there might be some variation among institutions, most general education requirements consist of: English, history, mathematics, and science (natural and social). The philosophy behind these requirements is they can help students discover a hidden passion that perhaps directs him or her in choosing a major or minor, while ensuring all college graduates have the same basic set of tools. But are these tools enough? After these requirements are completed, students then move on to tackling their upper division requirements, which fluctuates depending on their major. While all these requirements still serve a purpose, they may not accurately reflect the skills students need to have to land a job.

The Case for Unbundling

So, how can schools and employers work together to bridge the gap? One suggestion, put forth by the Committee for Economic Development’s Vice President for Education Research Monica Herk, is to forgo the status quo of the seat-time-based approach where students accrue a set number of required credit hours that bundled together add up to a two- or four-year degree. Instead, she proposes that postsecondary degrees should be ‘unbundled’ in order to make education and workforce development less costly and more efficient. Essentially a more competency-based approach. But doing this requires that students and their educational institutions know the general skills and knowledge that employers desire.

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Honing Skills in the Classroom

The nonprofit National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) surveyed 260 employers such as Chevron and IBM and discovered that employers want universal skills students can learn across academic disciplines. According to the survey, the top five skills any graduate must have are the:

  1. Ability to work in a team structure
  2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems (tie)
  3. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
  4. Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work
  5. Ability to obtain and process information

Once schools have identified and accepted the need for these skills, they can modify current courses or create all new courses that will help meet these requirements. And not only do these competency-based courses help students learn at their pace, but they also can help the university by bringing in students when enrollment is flat or declining. For schools looking to start or grow their programs, there is the CBE Design Planner created by the Competency-Based Education Network (C-EBN), which helps with the planning, start-up, implementation, and scale-up phase. The landscape of education is changing and in order to meet the growing demands, competency must become a common currency that is universally understood by students, employed by colleges, and recognized by employers.

Share in the comments how your school has integrated competency-based courses into its curriculum.

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Photo Courtesy of: WorldSkills UK

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