Published on 2012/01/31
As we struggle to recover from the worst economic set-back since the great depression, the question “what does business want in a college graduate” haunts many in higher education. Those of us with liberal arts backgrounds cling to our historic belief that business is best served by well rounded individuals grounded in the humanities, arts, sciences, and letters.  After all, we contend, can a corporation be successful in our new global economy if its employees’ education is concentrated in vocational areas such as management, accounting or marketing?

When businesses are asked what skills and knowledge they want from college graduates, two seemingly diametrically opposed answers emerge. The first is quite evident. Business wants graduates who can hit the road running on day one. They want employees who can work in teams, understand the market and the specific business, and work in multicultural, multiethnic, and global environments. They want individuals for which the use of technology is not an add-on, but at the core of their very being. They don’t want to spend additional money on training and education they believe should have been provided during an undergraduate experience.

On the other hand, research conducted by Hart Research Associates shows that business also wants graduates who have the ability to have long-term career success. The key factor here is the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing. At a close second are critical thinking and analytical reasoning abilities.

So what are we in academia to do?  At a time that government at all levels are screaming for greater accountability, should we train our students for immediate job placement or educate them for long-term career success? I would argue its imperative we do both.

Preparing our students for both immediate entry into the world of work and also for long-term career success are not mutually exclusive missions. It’s only our rigidity of thought and lack of innovation that keeps us from discovering new ways to merge these goals into courses of study that meet both objectives. Our traditional castles of department and college discourage us from a true dialog that would bring us to new understandings of how to emerge from our economic malaise and address the critical issues of the day.  If we are to be successful, we must be willing to risk all that is sacred and move into the world of the unknown.

In today’s rapidly changing economic and political environments, we must rethink how we prepare our graduates to help us make the world a better place in which to live. We must go beyond our 20th century understanding of multi- and inter-disciplinary study. We have to gaze toward the concept of multi-dimensional study where engaged students learn to address critical issues through the acquisition of applied skills and conceptual knowledge. They must understand the multiple and dimensional relationships of any problem being addressed.

Let’s take a simple example: a study abroad internship that sends students to Africa to drill a well for an impoverished village. The skill of being able to drill into the earth to find water combines many sciences and technologies. But, the students must also understand the historic, cultural, and economic factors that led to the well not being dug decades before.  Was it political instability or did the villagers simply lack the technology? Students must also be able to comprehend the consequences of what fresh water will bring. It could lead to increased agriculture and decreased disease, but also to tribal battles over ownership and access rights.

At its core, multi-dimensional study formulates the acquisition of knowledge in new ways.  It prepares students to move beyond linear thinking and into a logical framework that combines both hands-on skills and applied learning with the intellectual comprehension necessary to solve critical issues and problems.  It gives students the ability to view cultural, social, economic and other challenges from solution based perspectives.

Successful businesses provide solutions that improve our daily existence.  Really successful businesses change the way we interact with the world. In the new global world economy, business demands we educate college graduates who understand this concept and have the knowledge and the applied skills to make it happen.

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Readers Comments

Philippe 2012/02/01 at 12:19 pm

The value of interdisciplinary study and applied learning is vastly under-appreciated by academics today.

Why does learning have to come from a book or a lecture? Why can’t we have interactive lessons and project-based education?

Why is it that we see the value of field studies and group work for K-12, but as soon as we get to university we demand everyone hole themselves up and exclusively booklearn?

We’ve got a far way to go before the ivory tower sees what’s happening on the ground, but articles like yours are providing the binoculars I’m sure!

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