The One Question You Should Be Asking Your Future College—But Probably Aren’t
Prospective students and their parents tend to ask the same questions when they look into colleges and academic programs. One of the top ones is: what will I be able to do when I graduate? What are my job prospects with a degree in this field? Many will also ask what courses they'll be taking and what they'll be learning.
Almost nobody asks how they will learn. But this, as we'll see, is an even more important question. Because the challenge in today's rapidly changing labor market, with the innovation—and disruption—that advances in technology and communications are bringing, is not so much the skills you have in a certain field but the ones that enable you to adapt to change and innovation.
The focus on what you learn is understandable. Partly it's the whole high-school mindset of preparing for the national university entrance exams, memorizing page after page of material you're expected to reproduce on the exams. Maybe, too, it's the idea some parents have of higher education as something that prepares you straight for a career in a specific sector in which you'll work for years to come.
Of course, education does involve mastering the theoretical foundations and essential body of knowledge in your field of interest—and the sector-specific skills and competencies that go along with this. If you're doing a Business degree, for example, you'll need to know how to put together a marketing plan, analyze financial statements and construct budgets.
But there are at least four reasons why you shouldn't base your decision about what college to apply too narrowly on what you'll learn in your field of study—forgetting about how you'll learn.
1. You may find out the major you've chosen isn't right for you.
Let's start with a very practical problem. What if you find out you don't really like the courses you're taking in your chosen field?
We know that in higher educational systems like the American one, where most students don't even select their major until sophomore year, a significant minority of students do change their mind. A report from the US Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics found that within 3 years of first enrolling in college, about 30 percent of undergraduates who had declared a major changed it at least once.
Students at US colleges and universities, including US college programs in Greece, take a variety of courses during their first year. Some are in their field of interest, but most are in the General Education program, which includes electives in courses in various disciplines and required courses such as Academic Writing, Critical Thinking and Quantitative Reasoning. If they discover their true interests lie in a different field than their original major, they can switch without losing any credits or having to start over. In most Greek university programs, on the other hand, if you're unhappy with the program you're doing and want to change, you have to start all over again.
2. The most important skills companies are looking for in the people they hire are the ones that cut across disciplines.
Yes, the college degree you will earn in your field of interest is very important. But likely all the people competing for the jobs you're interested in will also have a degree. What skill set will make you stand out?
A recent survey of roughly 1,000 business executives and hiring managers conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) provides an answer. It found big gaps between what skills these executives were hoping to find and what their job applicants actually had. The high-priority skills they identified included things like critical thinking, oral and written communications, ethical judgment, and the ability to work independently but also in teams.
The biggest gaps—more than 40 percentage points—were found in skills such as critical thinking and analytical reasoning. 78% of those surveyed thought they were very important skills but only 34% considered that recent college grads were well-prepared. Similar gaps were found in the ability to communicate effectively in writing and to apply knowledge and skills to the real world.
Research by the consulting firm PwC, involving almost 1,400 interviews with CEOs around the world, confirm this finding. More than three quarters of the executives they interviewed were concerned about their firm's ability to recruit people with certain key skills. The "skills battleground" they identified—the ones executives considered very important but the most difficult to find—were not sector-specific but skills such as problem-solving, creativity and innovation, adaptability and leadership.
3. The career you imagine for yourself may not even exist in 10 years' time.
Think of some of the jobs in demand today. Drone operators, mobile app developers, social media managers, YouTube content creators, big data analysts, search engine optimization analysts. None of them even existed 10 years ago. At the same time, employment in work roles such as accountants, financial analysts, customer service representatives has already started to decline.
Today's world is one of unprecedented change, driven by massive advances in technology and communications. The World Economic Forum's (WEF) Future of Jobs Report 2018, a survey of Chief Human Resource Officers in firms in 20 developed and emerging economies, representing 15 million workers in a broad spectrum of sectors, identified four developments that will drive business growth in the coming years: high-speed mobile internet, artificial intelligence, big data analytics and cloud computing.
These technologies will certainly disrupt the labor market. The WEF estimates that 20% of current work roles are likely to become obsolete and be displaced by 2022.
The good news is that technological changes will also create new work roles—an estimated 27% more during the same period. Demand is expected to grow for professionals in tech fields such as human-machine interaction specialists, big data and machine learning but also for digital marketing and strategy specialists, training and development professionals, and people and culture specialists.
4. Even if your work role doesn't become obsolete in the future, the job-specific skills you acquire in college might become so.
As the WEF report makes clear, even in jobs that are not expected to decline, the skills needed to perform most of them will have changed significantly. It estimates that almost half of the required workforce skills will have shifted by 2022. The skills expected to be trending in 2022 include:
- Analytical thinking and innovation
- Active learning
- Creativity, originality and learning strategies
- Critical thinking and analysis
- Problem-solving and ideation
Ensuring that the workforce will have these skills is a major challenge. The companies surveyed in the WEF report estimate that they'll need to significantly reskill and upskill more than half their workforce, with about 20% needing six months of retraining or longer.
This is the reason that how you learn is just as important as, or perhaps more important than, what you learn.
The skills in demand now and the ones expected to be trending in 2022 can't be acquired by attending lectures, memorizing passages from textbooks and taking exams. They can only be gained through active learning that forces you to question your assumptions and move out of your comfort zone. With assignments that require you to apply theoretical knowledge to real-life problems and projects where you conduct research, analyzing material from a range of sources and synthesizing your findings in a tightly argued report. With courses in critical thinking, written communications and quantitative reasoning. With a system of teaching and learning that fosters your ability to work on independent projects, identify what you don't know and develop strategies to learn what you need to know; in short, to become an autonomous lifelong learner.
In the AACU survey of CEOs and hiring managers, most respondents noted that they'd be more likely to hire someone whose college experience included something more than just courses in the major. The most frequently mentioned advantage was an internship or apprenticeship with a company or organization. Roughly 60% said they would be much more likely to hire a graduate with this. But "multiple courses requiring significant writing assignments" was also important, with 33% of hiring managers saying they'd be much more likely to hire such a person.
Collaborative research projects, a senior capstone or thesis project or service learning project with a community organization all enhanced the attractiveness of recent graduates in the eyes of hiring managers.
Futureproof your skill set.
As the WEF Report concludes, the challenge ahead for us as a society and individually as workers is to ensure that we have "a motivated and agile workforce, equipped with futureproof skills to take advantage of new opportunities through continuous retraining and upskilling."
So, when you're investigating your options for higher education, make sure you ask the "how" question, too.