Keeping It Real


"How long are we going to talk about [soft skills] as a society before higher education listens and changes in response?"



At the heart of higher education must be relevant curriculum.  But what is the yardstick for measuring relevance?  Look to the students. The curriculum must spring from the students’ interests, passions, and needs.  


At College Unbound we work with returning adult learners—students who began degree programs at one point but then life happened.  For a variety of reasons they were unable to return and wound up with some college credits but no degree.  We have learned a lot about the returning adult learner.  Certainly they need flexible scheduling. They need to be able to work full time while being full time students so that they can finish degrees in a reasonable length of time. They need regular support from a learning cohort and academic advisor; and, maybe most importantly, they need relevant curriculum—curriculum that is immediately applicable, addresses their passions, allows them to explore and solve problems, and helps them accomplish personal and career goals.  They need curriculum that helps them evolve -both personally and professionally.


This month the Pew Research Center published a report titled “The State of American Jobs: How the Shifting Economic Landscape is Reshaping Work and Society and Affecting the Way People Think About the Skills and Training They Need to Get Ahead.” Whew!  That’s a mouthful.  


The report talks about a need for paying attention to the “soft skills”. No surprise there. How long are we going to talk about that as a society before higher education listens and changes in response?


So what’s the latest from the survey of employed American adults May-June 2016?

  • Interpersonal skills, critical thinking, and good communication skills top the list.
  • Only 28% claim that computer skills are central to what they do.
  • Only 14% say they rely on high-level math, analytical, or computer skills at work.
  • Among workers who rely on interpersonal skills, 35% say they learned them on the job and 8% learned them through formal education; another 38% claim to have taught themselves or had the skills naturally.
  • Of those whose job relies on critical thinking skills, 46% say they developed those skills on the job, 19% acquired those skills through formal education, and 18% learned them in life.

Higher education seems to pay greater attention to communications skills, with 42% claiming to have learned written and oral communication skills through formal education, while 30% learned them on the job.


This makes sense when you look at the way that conventional higher education is structured.  Composition and Public Speaking courses are required yet too many of the other “soft skills” are assumed to magically happen as a result of just attending college.  This system is hit or miss at best.  Some courses are fabulous at building critical thinking skills.  Some do a great job building problem solving skills.  I know of no courses aimed specifically at developing resilience or accountability or self advocacy—all critical skills for success in the workplace and in life.


That’s one of the things I appreciate about College Unbound.  At College Unbound our Big 10 Leadership and Change Habits of Mind and Practice are at the heart of the curriculum and the rest of the content is learned through application of those habits.  This focus is part of what keeps the curriculum relevant.  Through self-initiated, interest-based, and purposeful action research projects, students are developing the skills of critical thinking, problem-solving, accountability and more because they are essential to the success of their projects.  These habits are the heart of our General Education Requirements:

Accountability                          Advocacy for Self and Others

Collaboration                            Communication

Creativity                                  Critical Thinking

Intercultural Engagement         Problem Posing and Solving

Reflection                                 Resilience


That which is assessed is managed.  Our students are assessed against rubrics for each of the Big 10 each term and in each course.  Their growth is described by assessment from self, advisor, peers, and professional mentor.  That kind of 360 degree assessment both validates and challenges their own assessments and stimulates further growth.


We work with returning adult learners at College Unbound.  I would be hard pressed to find a single one who would find a course on the History of Western Civilization immediately relevant to their needs.  All returning adult learners benefit from growth in the soft skills.  Do we require mastering the content knowledge and skills determined by accreditors to be essential for college graduates?  You bet we do! But we do that in ways that are immediately relevant and applicable.  This is not a lesser curriculum, it’s a different curriculum--curriculum that is relevant to the students, the time, and the economy.