Given the ripple effect of the financial crisis, leaders around the world have taken a keen interest in reexamining strategies for long-term economic and societal growth. Although varied opinions exist about the cause, magnitude, and ultimate duration of the current economic situation, there appears to be a growing consensus about the connection of education to social stability and long-term economic success. World leaders who desire for their countries to have a competitive advantage in the global marketplace all recognize the first step toward this goal is to have a well-educated citizenry and workforce.
In recent decades, the United States, like many other countries, has experienced growth in participation rates in tertiary education, but completion rates have not kept pace. The postsecondary system has widened opportunity to numerous students from diverse backgrounds and encouraged lifelong learning among adults and existing workers. Subsequently, increased attention has been placed on student success and completion in the nation’s colleges and universities. And many have begun to question whether college students are truly being prepared to compete in a dynamic global economy. In fact, some have argued that until fundamental changes occur within the educational system, U.S. students will face what Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls a “global achievement gap.” In Wagner’s assessment, he focuses primarily on the need to enhance educational quality in America’s secondary schools; however, I believe the premise also applies to our postsecondary system. As we educate and prepare students for the workforce, we must be sure to teach them “how to work” and “how to live” in this new economy.
While the “global achievement gap” is a phenomenon affecting the United States, it also holds true in other nations. As institutional leaders across the globe push for greater accountability, the need to “count” has become a worldwide phenomenon in education. We count the number of degrees conferred; we count the number of faculty with doctorate degrees; we count the number of articles published in specific types of journals, and on and on. But none of these counts truly equate with quality; none of these counts are a true measure of students’ success; none of these counts ensure global competencies; and none of these counts guarantee a competitive workforce. In a recent report by the Asia Times, it was reported that China replaced the United States to become the world’s top producer of doctorate holders in 2008. The article also reveals that the vast majority of employers indicate that these recent Ph.D. holders were of “low quality.” Similar accounts are told about graduates in the United States and elsewhere.
In an effort to ensure that the U.S. economy keeps pace with China and others, we are “counting” too and the big push is to increase the numbers of college graduates. Across the nation, college and university leaders are taking initiative and making changes to ensure that they graduate more students. While graduating students is a worthy goal, we must make sure that our students complete their programs of study with quality degrees, applicable global competencies, and the technical training and expertise needed for high-skill, high-demand jobs. Although there are exceptions, few institutional leaders have explicitly linked these three components in students’ postsecondary education. And until we do so and willfully adjust current notions of teaching and learning, today’s students – tomorrow’s workers – will continue to be caught in the global achievement gap.
Because we live in an increasingly interdependent world, we cannot afford for any of our students to be stymied by the global achievement gap. Financial markets across the globe are interconnected. Technology has changed our modes of communications, access to information, and overall way of life. Political decisions made in one country can have effects, and sometimes even far-reaching consequences, on other countries and regions of the world. So, as we prepare our students with the expertise to be active players in the workforce and in shaping the economic, technological, and political context of our society, let us also teach and empower them to be socially responsible citizens of the world.
Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., is the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, an independent nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.