Community College Blog

Responding to Inside Higher Ed's Matt Reed

What is the 'right' general education for students heading into the working world?

by Melinda Salaman

While enjoying the benefits of an extended  Labor Day weekend, I thought about this holiday dedicated to the social and economic contributions of American workers. The concept of growing and celebrating the American workforce was on my mind after reading an article last week by Matt Reed from Inside Higher Ed’s “Confessions of a Community College Dean” blog. In “Navigation as a New Gen Ed,” Reed writes: “I’ve been thinking about the seeming disconnect between an economy in which paths to prosperity are ever more complicated and opaque, and the move afoot on campuses to make pathways simpler and clearer. They actually make sense together. They assume that the ability to navigate complexity is the new Gen Ed.”

Reed is right that the ability to navigate complexity is a valuable skill for any current graduate to master for the working world. Countless surveys suggest that the skills employers search for in new hires include problem-solving, analytical skills, and written and verbal communication, all of which rely on the ability to draw insights from complex information.

It’s fortunate that the typical community college student may already be familiar with complexity in her own life. Her schedule is likely filled with competing work, school, and family events that force her to be a master of multitasking. But as most of us know, while students often juggle competing responsibilities, they don’t always make the right decisions about what to prioritize and when (e.g., the student who forgoes full-time enrollment for extra shifts at work, without exploring available financial aid).

I agree with Reed, but prefer to expand on his point: the new general education for community college students should be more than just surviving in a complex world, it should be about thriving in it—which includes the ability to make sound decisions in complex personal and professional situations for the individual’s highest benefit.

Two movements hurting students: Guided pathways and intentional bureaucracy

Reed overstates the value of the guided pathways movement to achieving this end. Colleges that adopt guided pathways don’t teach student to navigate complexity, they shield students from it. It’s as if, overwhelmed by the frustration of students making poor decisions during intake, academic program selection, and course registration, some college leaders threw up their hands and eliminated the availability of choice altogether.

Through that approach, guided pathways does students a grave disservice, moving them further away from being able to develop those critical navigation skills that higher education should teach and that employers demand.

Related post: How to achieve liberal arts outcomes with guided pathways

That’s not to say that unfettered exposure to administrative complexities is a good thing. There are certainly college leaders who embrace a complicated intake process and incomprehensible bureaucracies as a “sorting mechanism” to determine which students can succeed in college.

During our time researching and sharing early insights from SSC–Navigate our team met a few college presidents who felt this way. There were several (memorably awkward) times when presidents of open-access institutions resisted the idea of streamlining the student experience at intake or thereafter. “College is supposed to be hard,” they’d say. “If they can’t major or choose their classes on their own, maybe this isn’t the right place for them.”

This position is shocking because it implies that the complexity students face in higher education is entirely theirs to either figure out or abandon altogether (connecting back to the “fight or flight” theme we coined in an earlier post.

It’s also frustrating because these leaders often grumble about declining enrollments and dollars at their institutions. It’s not difficult to see that faced with the option to enter an administratively complex and indecipherable world or find another alternative, students enroll at competitor institutions like four-year universities and for-profit colleges.

Lastly, history has shown that complicated enrollment processes and little guidance just don’t work. For decades, new community college students have fumbled through an enrollment process filled with arcane rules and processes before reaching the first day of class, and then proceeded to make suboptimal decisions about their majors and schedules. Most students never reach graduation, and those that do often graduate after investing much more time and money than they planned. I wouldn’t call a system that graduates fewer than 40% of all enrollees in six years a success by any measure.

Give a student pathway, or teach a student to find his own pathway?

There’s a middle ground between guided pathways and the “fend for yourself” logic we’ve encountered in our research. College leaders can guide students through critical academic decisions to ensure they make the right choices in the moment, but also learn the key considerations for making choices in complex circumstances in the future.

This is truly the new gen ed. Much of the magic of our product, SSC–Navigate, is in the way the platform provides students with key points of information right at the time they need it most. When choosing a major, for instance, students should be prompted to research academic requirements, tuition, transfer information, and associated job availability. We can’t make the decision for them, but we can help them make the right decision with the right information at hand.

We can also do this outside of technology. Consider all the decisions students must make to be successful in college and in life: Full time or part time enrollment? Accept grants or take out loans? Pursue a general transfer degree or industry certificate? The list of complicated choices and questions goes on, and our best way to serve students now and in the future is to guide their decisions without shielding them from the true complexity of the situation.

Consider sharing this post with colleagues at your institutions or peers at other campuses, and start a conversation about how best to strike a balance when helping students make decisions. Which programs, services, or academic disciplines already teach students key navigation skills, and how can you infuse them into other aspects of the institution?

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