Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Give me a break!

Q: The Wall Street Journal says big U.S. companies, when hiring for entry-level jobs, are picking bachelors' degree graduates of big state universities over Ivy Leaguers and other grads of more elite schools. Recruiters said they need people with practical skills. Would you take the same approach? Do you think your school prepared you well for whichever form of success you sought? In the long run, does it matter what you studied in college, and where you went?

AAAAaaaaarrrrrggghhhh! Yes. My first reaction to this question was to scream. But, then, my "high-falutin" [sic] private liberal arts college education kicked in, and so, forthwith, a more rational response:

You must be kidding.

Okay, let me try it one more time: Did anybody bother to check where the corporate recruiters, on whose judgment this rather superficial research was based, went to school? For the last 30 years or more, at least 85 percent of American college students have attended public universities. Stands to reason, therefore, that many of the recruiters preferred their own alma maters, just as Harvard and Yale graduates preferred their own schools for generations. Just a hunch.

Let's get a few things straight:

First, there are thousands of private colleges and universities, and most are not "high-falutin." Many were founded by religious orders of women and men back in the day because people of those religions -- Catholics being the largest group -- were not welcome on other campuses. Others were founded because Blacks were excluded by admissions policies from many campuses. Still other colleges came into being because women could not gain entry elsewhere.

American higher education is strong in part because of the broad diversity of types of institutions in the mix -- women's colleges, Catholic or Baptist colleges, historically Black colleges, tribal colleges and many other private institutions offer distinctive options that large, homogeneous public universities do not offer.

Many of these smaller private colleges are neither wealthy nor necessarily well known, and yet, their graduates have become leaders across many industries. For example, my own institution, Trinity in Washington, can claim the Speaker of the House, Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Assistant Secretary of HHS, the Ambassador for Nuclear Non-Proliferation, the former chief of staff to Hillary Clinton, the president of Bryn Mawr College, and many other top governmental officials as well as private corporate leaders. Yet, Trinity is certainly not nearly as well known as the University of Maryland at College Park -- largely because we don't have men's football or basketball!

Second, the ability to read critically, write persuasively, understand human behavior, conduct quantitative analysis and engage in critical reasoning are all skills that corporate leaders and public agencies need and desire in their workforce -- and these are the basic skills of a great liberal arts education. Great liberal arts colleges are both public and private, large and small, but they share, in common, a view about higher education as different and distinctive from job training.

The Wall Street Journal article accompanying this question dismisses critical reasoning as a ''soft'' skill. Huh? Critical reasoning is the foundation skill for professional life and professional success. The specific applied skills needed in any job will change many times throughout the worker's professional lifespan -- how many of us started our jobs knowing how to use Powerpoint or blogging software? -- and critical reasoning is the ability to "figure stuff out" long beyond classroom days.

Third, the current fad to demean and dismiss liberal learning as somehow unimportant or not very pragmatic in relation to workforce needs is a great betrayal of the intellectual firepower that this society needs now and in the future. The issue is not "public" versus "private" colleges -- there's so much need and demand for higher education, we need all kinds of institutions. Rather, the issue is whether and how we can get more members of the rising generations to finish high school and to complete college degrees.

Some of those degrees will be in history and philosophy, and some will be in mechanical engineering. Lord knows we need people who remember history and appreciate philosophy and ethics in the workplace as much as we need engineers and mid-level management specialists.

Rather than demeaning some forms of education as a means to elevate others, we should be promoting all options to match the student's talent and abilities with the best educational pathways.

Finally, many studies show that, over the course of a career, where you go to school and what your major was turn out to be far less important than whether the student developed the durable skills necessary for continuous intellectual growth and lifelong learning outside of formal settings.

Additionally, the networks of friendships and support systems available through the alumnae and alumni associations of many excellent colleges provide opportunities and personal relationships that promote lifelong success and a real sense of fulfillment. "The old school tie" really does count -- even if no one ever wore a tie at the school.

Public or private, Ivy or wannabe, famous or obscure, what matters most decades later is whether the college made it possible for the student to keep learning, to sustain networks, to find a sense of intellectual and even spiritual fulfillment in the lifelong pursuit of knowledge.

By Patricia McGuire  |  September 27, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Education and success Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Critical thinking is appropriately treated as a soft skill due to it's general applicability and the difficulty people have in defining what it really is. The possession of critical thinking skills is something that can be shared by an English major and an electrical engineering major but the two obviously have different hard skills. Then there's the problem of defining what critical thinking or reasoning is.

Soft skills such as being able to think and being able to interact well with others are meaningful skills in the workplace. Who wants to work with someone who's got the hard skills but is an utter jerk? The soft skills may not get you hired but the lack of them will accelerate your untimely departure in a way that most academics don't understand.

Posted by: Rick441 | September 28, 2010 4:38 AM
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The Wall Street Journal article accompanying this question dismisses critical reasoning as a ''soft'' skill. Huh? Critical reasoning is the foundation skill for professional life and professional success.
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It's good to see that the snobbish belief that "critical thinking" skills can only be obtained by reading literate still permeates academia.

Posted by: wolfcastle | September 27, 2010 12:40 AM
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