Chapter 4: Opening the Campus to Comprehensive Education and Careers

by Gregory S. Woodward, D.M.A.

Posted on November 20, 2019

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During my recent first year on a new campus, I found myself in search of the true character of the institution I had joined. What were the special strengths of this university? What opportunities existed for advancement? Were there areas where we could direct additional focus? 

To begin to answer these questions, I utilized what is called the President’s Council, a group of about 40 campus leaders, to do a little informal research. At a series of monthly Q&A breakfasts, the Council interviewed groups of approximately six students, asking the same few questions: What first attracted you to the University of Hartford? What promises did we make to you? Did we fulfill those promises? What were your initial impressions and goals? Where were we particularly successful and where did we fail to deliver? The students were grouped into like categories: first-years, transfers, seniors, athletes, honors, and academically-challenged students. 

These sessions revealed two essential truths about our students’ experiences: what the students most wanted and expected from college was a vast palette of curricular and experiential options from which they might choose their personal paths; and secondly, while the university structure seemed to lend itself well to this, in practice, that was not always the students’ experience. The University of Hartford is made up of seven discreet and varied colleges, and although this design is often cited as one of the primary reasons students chose this particular college, the intensely structured and restrictive requirements of the students’ majors eliminated almost any chance to easily expand their course choices much beyond their primary field of study. In my opinion, our college failed them in their quest to nurture their full selves, to expand their worlds beyond a narrow career-oriented regimen, and to create in themselves the broadly educated, creative, multi-faceted individuals that employers actually most desire. 

What the students most wanted and expected from college was a vast palette of curricular and experiential options from which they might choose their personal paths.  

During this same first year, I met several employers of our graduates from a wide swath of industry and enterprises. In talking with these real-world leaders, I learned that had I held a series of breakfast interviews with these valued members of the university community, two more essential truths would likely have emerged: graduates routinely arrived at their new jobs with too many specific (and often, outdated) technical skills in their major, but they had too few general skills in teamwork, creative problem-solving, communication (written, oral, and technical), and computer language maneuverability. 

Time after time, employers urged me to stop educating students beyond a reasonable, professional level and to equip them instead with more translatable skills and experiences. One very highly-placed CEO told me to educate students to what he would consider a seven out of ten in professional/technical learning only, knowing that the industry was hoping to build upon that powerful foundation in training their own employees towards their particular and specialized needs. 

One particularly engaged CEO said something quite fascinating; it is not that these graduates aren’t ready for the job, but rather, that employers are not ready for the students! Today’s graduates are a little more open to experimentation, a little less clear in their writing but advanced in social media and networking, a little less single-minded in their pursuit of profit, and a little more interested in social justice and effecting change. Contrary to what the media has often theorized, no one told me that these “gen-z” students were lazy, unintelligent, selfish, entitled, or anything short of excellent, motivated young people ready to make good lives and a better world, and I agree wholeheartedly with that characterization. On the other hand, they do expect to get paid well, and to advance in the business quickly. 

Today’s graduates are a little more open to experimentation, a little less clear in their writing but advanced in social media and networking, a little less single-minded in their pursuit of profit, and a little more interested in social justice and effecting change.  

What does this mean for the University of Hartford, or for higher education in general? At the furthest extension, perhaps the very idea of “majors” is in question. How might our students benefit from a more personalized and wide-ranging set of learning experiences as opposed to a somewhat narrow set of major-dominated requirements accompanied, almost as an afterthought, by a limited set of “general education” courses? As a musician and composer, I know that there are no shortcuts to mastery; but I also know that mastery is an elusive and life-long journey and that four years between the ages of 18 and 22 will never be much more than a limited apprenticeship in a career that is likely to change and evolve many times over the course of our students’ lives. Of course, engineers still need to learn to be engineers, and I certainly hope to have future healthcare professionals learn as much as possible before assisting me with my own health. However, perhaps there is a middle, or not quite middle, ground between skill mastery in a specific field and being a well-educated person able to advance in any field as a result of a more broadly-defined undergraduate degree. 

And here is another critical variable in this equation; young people are redefining the future of work as they move into it. The careers and job skills needed for the future are rapidly changing, and perhaps a finance major who loves to sing and is an expert at e-sports is as valid a future employee as an electrical engineering major who wasn’t able to take a single elective course in college because of the rigorous nature of the major requirements. As a former dean of a music school, I know that music education majors had virtually every course defined for all semesters of the standard undergraduate years. These students were music education majors “on steroids,” exceptionally good at what they did but, in general, starving for other interests and wider endeavors. 

A number of my early morning breakfast interviewees from my first year at the University of Hartford had very specific goals, but these goals necessitated what they believed to be the accumulation of a special mixture of skills. I remember the student government president telling the Council about his aim to study marketing and business while also studying voice, sound recording, and poetry, all preparing him to write, perform, produce, and market his own music. At least four of our traditional colleges would be engaged in his personal development, and none of them offered a “major” with this particular combination of courses and experiences. While he was able to do much of this study, eventually he ran out of the time, credits, and money needed to do it all. Perhaps this is fine and we did our part, but I was left feeling just a little bit disappointed, and so was the student. Many people on campus might point this student towards a “design-it-yourself” major, yet I have a feeling that this option might explode in popularity if we led more students to it. And the University might find itself in a challenging position with accrediting agencies for graduating so many of what we call “University Studies” majors. More simply, if this student had a primary major/concentration with more “free” space for other courses, this plan might pose a more reasonable and realistic curricular option. 

These students are trying to enlarge all the parts of themselves they cherish while hedging their bets on career options at the same time.  

One thing that clearly demonstrates our students’ hopes and realities is the fact that at my university an overwhelming number of undergraduate students have double and triple majors, a minor or two, and engage in a long list of extracurricular activities and clubs. I imagine the same is true at many of your institutions across the country. The resumes of our students look long and, in truth, a little preposterous to me and to others, including prospective employers, who are invariably thinking, “how could a student do so many things and do any of them well?” These students are trying to enlarge all the parts of themselves they cherish while hedging their bets on career options at the same time. Surely, they must be thinking, there is a job just right for me somewhere in this huge mix of things I am studying. 

I am not a fan of “hedging.” Let’s help our students explore who they are, what they enjoy doing, where they have aptitude and potential, and then create a plan that sets them on a reasonable and practical path towards those realities. Jobs will happen—they always seem to—and in the meantime, the students are more engaged, more fulfilled, and perhaps, at the risk of intoning a highly overused word these days, more passionate about what they are learning. 

At the University of Hartford, one lesson from my first year is very clear: we need to build very wide and tall doors on the seven silos we call colleges. Our students want to become physical therapists while they write poetry and learn about personal finance. They want to be deeply engaged with data analytics while they sculpt and serve as student senators. It is arguable that our resident advisors learn almost as much in that position as they do in their majors, though selling oneself to a potential employer as an expert in ad-hoc, after-midnight conflict management is undoubtedly more challenging than simply labeling oneself as an organizational communications major. 

Here, then, is the conundrum we face; employers want skilled graduates who have a host of practical skills in a number of areas, with the potential to be good and fun colleagues. As it turns out, our students want the same thing. However, our current system of restricted majors and curricular maps makes this experience and outcome extremely difficult, if not completely impossible. The fix is easy; don’t teach them so much! Or at least not in ways that are measured on a GRE subject test. 

More personalized educational journeys, a dash of experiential learning, fewer requirements, deep learning through extended projects, preliminary training in a major field or concentration, intentional engagements in diverse learning groups, vocational exploration and experimentation, excellent communication skills, and the cultivation of a love for learning and an active curiosity to last a lifetime—this seems like a good recipe for an undergraduate feast. Employers win, students win, and higher education gets to flex all of its many inspiring muscles and become the rich learning and growing experience it has always hoped to be. We are neither a finishing school nor a job-training center. We are a university, incredibly rich and varied in our opportunities and lessons. Perhaps we can take ourselves a tad less seriously, perhaps we can loosen up the reins just a bit, and maybe we can finally allow the learning and our learners to run a little amok!