The Education of Corporate America

Business leaders will admit freely that they value the foundation that a liberal arts education provides; in fact, a liberal arts background is the edge that secures the applicant the job. What business leaders have forgotten to do, however, is to say so.
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The leadership in America's colleges and universities spends a great deal of time making the case for the kind of education that reflects the people, programs and facilities already in place. It is an understandable position; indeed, on most levels many of us often wish that the argument had more legs. Much of the defense centers on the value of a liberal arts education. The liberal arts teach us to think by training us to write, articulate, work cooperatively, employ technology and use quantitative methods. It's the right argument to make. The problem is that the right argument is also an insufficient one.

Today, American education is facing a "not only . . . but also" moment. On the one hand, the argument for the liberal arts is the moral high ground that produces an educated citizenry. On the other hand, the knowledge-driven economy driving the future of the United States speaks profoundly to the need for workforce preparation to maintain a competitive edge. And the effect is that higher education and American business have been speaking past one another thereby imperiling the global franchise that American higher education holds. It also creates the gap noted by Anthony Carnevele, Stephen J. Rose and others between whom and how we prepare and what the American economy will need in the 21st century.

There is a compromise position between the moral and the practical. When you think about it, both sides are arguing from the same platform. Global employers want engineers who can write and speak. Higher education believes that its defense of the historic value of a liberal arts education is a line in the sand. Yet, business leaders will admit freely that they value the foundation that a liberal arts education provides; in fact, a liberal arts background is the edge that secures the applicant the job. What business leaders have forgotten to do, however, is to say so.

The first step in the negotiated settlement may be for America's business leadership to hold out the olive branch by word and action. So many of them sit on college boards of trustees and advisory councils that business leaders should be perfectly positioned to seek common ground. Many of them already live in both worlds. They now need to connect the dots.

These business leaders can speak not only to the number of engineers needed but also the types of skills needed to attract successful engineers. To meet their workforce needs, America's business leadership should be the most articulate about the value of the education that they received, whether at public or independent colleges and universities. After all, business leaders are where they are today in large part because of what they learned and who they became in their formative years in college.

The second step is equally critical to development of a common agenda. It is no longer enough for business leaders to support programs that advance high school completion and workforce preparation because these programs largely treat those not bound for college. This is necessary but insufficient support to develop a well-trained workforce. For the millions of workers beyond current graduates that Carnevale and others estimate will need a college degree to qualify for the work produced by a knowledge economy, America's corporate leadership now reach beyond what were minimum education requirements in the last century to find their workforce. The American middle class will be built upon how successful we are at providing access to a college degree. It's a little like global warming. This debate is over.

The key is access. For companies that think strategically about how to develop and improve their workforce, the first step is to open the door. They must support programs that encourage early identification, readiness, informed mentorship, and outcomes assessment. These programs must complement the work that they and the federal government undertake to increase high school completion but most go further to identify promising candidates for two-year or four-year degrees. And for those students who complete a public or independent two-year degree, corporate support must bridge the gap to expand the concept of access to include a four-year degree. It's the only way to get at how best to find the millions of American workers they will need.

In the 1950s, the knee-jerk defensive reaction to the Russians launching of Sputnik paved the way for a greater concentration of American resources to support science education. John F. Kennedy accomplished the same by balancing science with public service. Lyndon B. Johnson followed with support for the arts and humanities. These programs enjoyed wide public support and yet broke new ground. When tested or inspired, America -- including corporate America -- can move the agenda.

If there is to be a new American education agenda, America's business leadership must step forward to work with higher education to prepare a well-educated workforce. Its foundation is the liberal arts. Its pathway is access to higher education. And its future will determine where the American economy -- and American society -- will stand by the middle of the 21st century.

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