President Steele: Is a College Graduate Shortage in Our Future?

America is turning out college grads in record numbers, but we may soon experience a significant and potentially troubling shortage. Some 70 million Americans – nearly 50 percent of those ages 25-29 – now hold college degrees. What’s striking is that the supply of workers with college credentials may still fall 16 million short of what the nation will need by 2025.

That’s according to a study from the prestigious Lumina Foundation and cited in The Promise of Higher Education, a new report on teaching, learning and student success from the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) of universities and colleges, one of the premier organizations in the field.

And it’s not simply a numbers gap. Even with the recent focus on STEM, there’s a persistent mismatch between what students are studying and what the economy will need five and ten years hence.

In a 2016 interview, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates predicted that people with backgrounds in science (including mathematics), engineering and economics will be most in demand in tomorrow’s employment market. Bottom line — we need to do a much better job preparing our students for the coming world of work.
With this in mind, what can colleges and universities do to increase the value of higher education and address this degree mismatch, to keep up with national demand? What are the big pedagogical issues affecting higher education today — apart from such fundamental concerns as student debt and student body diversity – over which colleges and universities can exert some control?

I agree with a recent survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) concluding that we need to change core curriculum requirements in our nation’s colleges and universities. Here’s just one unsettling survey finding: the American public continues to stress the importance of economics but precious few colleges or universities require its study as part of the core curriculum. Here’s another unfortunate revelation: while the emphasis on STEM is increasing at the college level, the standards to back up that curricular shift are weak at best, especially in mathematics. ACTA reports that a recent National Survey of America’s College Students found that only 58 percent of colleges and universities require students to take a college-level math course.

This is where the discussion becomes highly nuanced: AGB also found that the emphasis within universities is moving in the direction of career-oriented education. While I believe that preparation for the working world remains a core mission for higher ed, it is every bit as important that we affirm the traditional values of a university education — critical thinking, communications and analytical skills, especially in an increasingly data-driven and team-based economy. As the president of a small, private, non-profit university in California, I can attest that some of the biggest gains in critical thinking occur at smaller colleges where students are enriched by a challenging curriculum, strong student-faculty interaction and a focus on student success.

So yes, while higher education must continue to adapt to keep up with future demands, the transition must be a balanced one, ever mindful that a back-to-basics approach that focuses on the fundamentals (like critical thinking) is the surest way to reinforce the purpose of a university education.

Let’s go back, way back, to the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plato, who died in 347 BC and was the founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Plato struggled with these same issues, including philosophical questioning, critical thinking, rational argument and systematic thought. He in turn was influenced by the mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras, and the idea that mathematics was a basis for critical thinking.

Clearly, re-imagining the college curriculum of the future should not eclipse the educational principles that our ancient teachers espoused more than 2,000 years ago. These basic teachings are required for any given career path, not just those in economics, science or engineering. We could do worse than to follow their lead.

Learn more about President David Steele-Figueredo
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