It’s a Matter of Fit

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Nicholas R. Santilli, Ph.D.
Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs
Professor of Psychology
Notre Dame College of Ohio

Over the past several months, I attended several professional meetings where the topic of the future of higher education was front and center.  Sessions focused on the imminent demise of college as we know it replaced by the latest variety of digital education, degrees replaced by badges, flipped classes, adaptive learning, the unbundling of the educational experience, containing costs, and how unprepared today’s college graduates are for the world of work.  Cutting through the static of this latest assault on the college experience and fitness of college graduates for adulthood can be exhausting.  How does a thoughtful person cut through the din? In my opinion, the crux of the matter lies along these lines: the learning and developmental needs of traditional aged college students, how well the college experience meets these needs, and matching employers’ expectations  with the development of  contemporary, traditional-aged college graduates.

Millennials or Emerging Adults?

Not long ago I suggested the contemporary fixation on millennials is misplaced (Santilli, 2010). The conceptualization of millennials does provide convenient shorthand for today’s students: feelings of exceptionality, confidence, sheltered, team-oriented, achieving, pressured, and conventional. But do these qualities describe the 80 million millennials? I think not. Instead I suggest we think of this cohort of individuals not as millennials but as emerging adults.

The life-stage of emerging adulthood was proposed by Jeffrey Arnett in his article in the journal American Psychologist (2000) and later in his book titled; Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties (2004). Emerging adulthood captures a new life stage spanning the ages between 18- to 25-years old.  According to Arnett, delay in age of first marriage and parenthood, prolonged time for education and assumption of adult work responsibilities, and financial dependence, have introduced a new stage in the life course that stands between adolescence and young adulthood.  These five qualities define emerging adulthood:

       Identity Exploration:  discerning life goals, especially in relationships and work;

       Instability:  Consequence of exploration characterized by fluctuation in residence, relationships, and commitments (academic majors and careers);

       Self-focused:  Normal and transitory focus on the knowledge, skills, and self-understanding necessary for adulthood;

       Feeling in-between: In transition between the teenage years and young adulthood, and;

       Age of possibilities: Individuals have an unparalleled number of opportunities to choose from to transform their lives.

In short, between 18 and 25 emerging adults seek to refine life-goals around personal relationships and vocation; experience periods of instability in life-choices around commitments to relationships, academic and vocational decisions, and residency; are intentionally self-reflective; at times show a lack of direction, and; show a degree of anxiety due to the seemingly overwhelming number of opportunities facing them.  College for these individuals needs to be a developmental experience that permits them to explore opportunities, feel discomfort, reflect and act.

College and Emerging Adulthood: Train Wreck or Good Fit?

The present discourse on the college experience seems to miss this point: College is a matter of fit.  Arguments around delivery systems, flipped or hybrid classes, or credentialing via badges take us down blind alleys.  Each has its place.  What we have neglected to discern is what educational experience best fits the students in the classroom or at the other end of the online connection.  This generation of college students is the most diverse in history.  Yet, we fall into the trap of considering college students as a homogeneous set, possessing more or less the same qualities (those millennial character traits).  Our students are far more heterogeneous today possessing varying educational needs and demands.  Veterans and adult students with transfer credit, seeking to complete college degrees are different than students fresh out of high school.  Some colleges get this point while others still try to force students down the same path, through one doorway.

So, what do emerging adults need?  In my opinion three things:  a liberal education, current fields of study, and access to high-impact educational practices.  The first two are often at odds.  Liberal education, steeped in the humanities, social, and natural sciences provide the grounding in human experience upon which professional studies build.  Current fields of study should be rethought, a move away from narrow, traditional majors. Instead, students should be offered educational pathways that blend and integrate knowledge from these disciplines—toward interdisciplinary studies.  The modern workplace is far too complex to become overly specialized in a single area of study.  The toolkit for the future requires not only knowledge of a field in depth but also knowledge of culture, history, communication, psychology, science, and technology; a blend of liberal education and professional preparation.  Liberally educated professionals are what the workforce needs and a democratic republic demands.

The third educational experience, high impact educational practices (HIP), has been shown to enrich the college experience.  George Kuh, architect of the National Survey of Student Engagement, has identified ten HIP’s that foster deep learning in college.  The HIP’s are: First Year Seminars; Internships; Undergraduate Research; Service-Learning; Learning Communities; Capstone Projects; Writing-Intensive Courses; Global Learning; Common Intellectual Experiences, such as, general education requirements, and; Collaborative Projects (Kuh, 2008).  HIP’s are not limited to specific academic majors but cut across the curriculum. These ten practices foster engagement in learning, relationships with faculty, and improve persistence and completion rates.

What’s an Employer to Do?

 I often speak to employers about emerging adults in the workplace.  Here is some simple advice.  First, recognize that your new employee remains a work in progress.  The developmental tasks of emerging adulthood continue through the mid-twenties.  While some new grads will be fully engaged in making the transition to the workforce and citizenship others may not be quite “job ready.”  This may be due less to lack of preparation in college and more a consequence to moving to a new and unfamiliar role:  From student to employee.  Second, when reviewing candidates for open positions ask them if they participated in any of the high-impact educational practices while students.  The applicant may not be familiar with the term “high impact practice” but she will know the more specific terms like “internship,” “learning community,” “service-learning,” or “capstone project.”  Engage your applicant in a conversation about what she may have learned by participating in the activity and how this learning may translate to their career aspirations and the specific job she seeks with your firm.  Finally, ask applicants what type of academic or extra-curricular work they engaged in outside of the major.  The best candidates demonstrate that they can be “more than their major.”  Did they study abroad, complete a minor, or participate in performing arts?  Ultimately you want a job candidate that found a way to blend his professional preparation with a liberal education experience.