Kay Bunch, a faculty member in the Department of Managerial Sciences has recently authored an article titled “The State of Undergraduate Education: A Perfect Storm or Climate Change?” which has been accepted for publication in Academy of Management Learning & Education, a premier journal of scholarship of teaching and learning. This article offers a new approach to addressing growing concern about the state of higher education. In the decade 2000 – 2010, the average tuition and fees at public, four-year schools rose 72 percent while average earnings for full-time workers aged 25-34 with bachelor’s degrees declined almost 15 percent. During the same period, the average debt for new college graduates increased by nearly 25 percent. In the areas of reading, numeracy, and problem-solving skills, U.S. millennials are ranked at or near the bottom among most industrialized countries despite attaining more education and receiving higher grades than previous generations. Based on 2016 U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Labor for the American Community Survey data, nearly 50 percent of recent business majors were “underemployed” (holding jobs that require no college) two years after graduation, and many remained underemployed for years.
Writers have explained problems in higher education the result of a “perfect storm.” Perfect storm is a common metaphor for attributing a crisis to a convergence of unexpected and unavoidable events. The damage is sudden, and recovery takes time, but a perfect storm ends. For example, a common argument is that the 2008 financial crisis triggered a perfect storm in higher education. However, despite the financial recovery, “public confidence in higher education” continues to slide. Dr. Bunch proposes that “climate change” provides a better framework for understanding the crisis because the metaphor implies a “new normal.” Climate change research provides a model for tackling profound difficulties, especially as it relates to concepts such as competing stakeholders, tough choices, profound complexity, and resistance to change.
There are systemic problems that require sweeping top-down change, but there is no single strategy that works for all institutions. A fully online for-profit school cannot resolve challenges in the same way as a medium-sized public university on-campus program. Regardless of a school’s strategic choice, however, there are small but meaningful bottom-up tactics related to critical thinking, career self-management, and manager effectiveness, that should appeal to many stakeholders including students, parents, administrators, faculty, taxpayers, and employers.
First, employers, faculty, administrators, and scholars recognize the value of critical thinking, but courses often focus on “immediate use knowledge” with little emphasis on critical thinking. Critical thinking is the ability to understand complex ideas, draw logical conclusions, identify problems beyond the most simplistic, and present convincing arguments. It is possible to evaluate and develop a student’s critical thinking with relatively simple assessments based on real-world situations. Even multiple-choice items that require a written justification can be valuable.
Second, many recent graduates have unrealistic career expectations and quickly become demoralized in the face of obstacles. This can set in motion long-term underemployment. However, faculty can improve student self-efficacy and coping skills at the course level through assignments, discussion about careers, and faculty-student interaction. Faculty can help students develop greater awareness of their abilities and strengthen their resilience by providing accurate and developmental feedback.
Third, management competence is important to most business school stakeholders, especially students and their future subordinates, but evidence suggests that “good managers are rare.” It seems that many managers have limited “applied management knowledge” and inadequate “soft-skills.” The good news is that relatively simple assignments could have an impact because “all effective managers resemble one another.” Giving students the opportunity to practice and receive “informed” feedback can enhance future success.