How raising the bar for post-secondary education in the applied sciences and technologies can help Nevada to enhance pathways of socio-economic mobility for all Nevadans, while creating more social, human and economic capital in the state.
Two unmet state needs:
In conversations with both academic and business people in Nevada regarding unmet state post-secondary educational needs, one consistently hears two recurrent themes:
- Not enough high school graduates continue on to college immediately upon graduation. While many high school graduates eventually go to college at a later date these delayed college starts mean our students often need much more time to complete their post-secondary degrees. In fact, many late-starters never do complete a baccalaureate degree. As a system, we must continue to implement programs (such as the High Technology Centers shared with the secondary schools and the Millennium Scholarship Program) which are focused on encouraging more high school graduates to continue their education immediately. However, even if we could immediately raise to 100% our college-going rate among high school graduates there would still be a large number of Nevada adults who have been educationally disadvantaged by some unfortunate choices they made early on. This problem forces the question of what steps NSHE can take to provide college degree access to all adults who can benefit from it, no matter where they might be in their lives, or where they might live in Nevada.
- Local employers consistently describe difficulty in recruiting and keeping highly skilled employees in the workforce. We hear these complaints from the tourism, construction, distribution and manufacturing industries as well as from hospitals and school systems. The jobs which go vacant, or end up being filled by individuals who are less than optimally qualified, are often very good ones, paying very good benefits and wages. How can NSHE provide appropriate delivery systems which educate Nevadans in these pragmatic disciplines, in sufficiently large numbers to attract and maintain good industries and services in the state? And how can we be sure to offer the best educational and training programs so that the current workforce remains at the top of its form, as the scientific and technological applications required by industry continue to evolve?
Both the above problems define areas in which the state's
community colleges have been helpful. These colleges provide pragmatic instruction at convenient locations and times via schedules and formats which meet the needs of nontraditional learners. They also work either through campus outreach programs or with the NSHE MAP (manufacturing assistance program) field agents to deliver training programs in occupational and applied technology areas which are needed by local employers. Nevertheless, we continue to hear from local industries that they often turn down contracts because they do not have enough precision machinists, welders, network managers, database specialists, et cetera, to complete an order. One obvious solution to this problem is to encourage larger numbers of academically talented college-bound high school graduates to pursue technical and occupational college programs.
Raising the bar for technical education:
"The hand is the cutting edge of the mind." -- Jacob Bronowski
To attract more recent high school graduates to college-level occupational programs we as educators must change our own attitudes about what defines a professional education. The late Alfred North Whitehead in an essay on the nature of education (The Aims of Education, Free Press, 1967) described two different world views about education which have come down through history. The first view is the Platonic, framed in terms of what is accomplishable via pure, abstract intellectual effort, and the other is the Benedictine, in which education is a blend of learning which engages both the body and the mind. Both views were appropriate to their cultures. Classical Greek civilization, as Whitehead notes, was based on a slave economy. The educated sons of the citizens of Athens did not aspire to be productive in any manual way. On the contrary, the Benedictine monks considered physical work blessed, and a life without it as incomplete. Today a good education should blend the Platonic and the Benedictine perspectives. Yet it generally doesn't. Except in a few areas like sports, medicine and the fine arts, our college curriculums are all too often tilted heavily toward Platonic values. Even in the sciences, which have been recognized as a legitimate component of post-secondary education since the middle of the Nineteenth Century, we fight a constant battle to maintain relevant laboratory work as an essential and integrated part of an undergraduate's education. No wonder we have telegraphed to our brightest young high school graduates that the only sure passport to a professional life is a four-year, liberal arts college degree.Nor is it any surprise that many young people, made restless by irrelevant school curriculums, too often give up on education either during or shortly after their high school years.
Nevada is not the only state struggling with the problem of how to find and educate a sophisticated workforce for the technical demands of a strong economy.Since the Advanced Technological Education Act, passed by the U. S. Congress in 1993, the National Science Foundation has operated a special post-secondary initiative aimed at assisting community and technical colleges to raise the educational bar for technical education and training programs. In various states such as California, Georgia, Ohio, North Carolina, New York, Texas, Arizona and Utah, occupational education and the community and technical colleges' role in delivering it is being rethought. Good, technology-based occupational education today is starting to be defined differently from the narrowly specialized, vocational two-year curriculums of the past. The goal of the ATE program is to model attractive, hands-on, technology-based programs which appeal to high school students and which encourage further pursuit of baccalaureate education in technical areas.Technology is ever evolving, and its practitioners must be lifelong learners. That was the original function of the baccalaureate degree- to produce graduates who had the tools and the will to pursue learning throughout life. Hence, it is time to see the occupational programs as "ladders" where a student can indeed step off with a certificate of achievement or associate degree, but can also continue on, or return later, to complete a baccalaureate education, and prepare for a life of continual learning.
To succeed in creating strong, polytechnic baccalaureate programs, the NSHE should consider taking the following steps:
- New Programs: Embrace a new baccalaureate degree for public higher education in Nevada, blending pragmatic, hands-on applications of science and mathematics, a working knowledge of the latest information and production technologies, some manual, live-work skills gained by experiential learning, and, of course, a strong general education.
- "Ladder" Missions: Broaden the mission of all Nevada community colleges to include the delivery of the upper division of these new degrees. The appropriate route for technical programs is the two-plus-two format, where a student can complete a certificate or an associate degree, make a decision to enter the workforce immediately, but choose later to return to college and matriculate in a pragmatic, polytechnic baccalaureate program without risking a loss of college credits.The technically focused two year college is becoming an appropriate venue for such programs, as demonstrated by mission changes for such institutions as the Fashion Institute of Technology, Utah Valley State College and Dixie College, Southern Tech in Georgia and the SUNY Colleges of Technology.
- Plan by Needs Assessment: Such programs should be selected after a technology strategic plan is developed within the state, but will probably include: technology management, construction management technology and architectural (engineering) technology, information technology, computer art and design, manufacturing (engineering) technology,computer and telecommunication (engineering) technology, environmental technology and laboratory technology.
- Use Partnerships: Polytechnic baccalaureate degrees should at first be developed as partnerships within the NSHE. By sharing technical courses via distance learning (web and interactive TV delivery) and common weekend laboratories, the evolution of polytechnic baccalaureates in Nevada can occur in such a way as to represent minimal new start up costs for any institution within the system. Every campus has certain intrinsic curriculum strengths which can be harnessed to accomplish this goal. The individual institutions will give different colorations to these programs, by the different values embodied by each college's unique general education program.
- Outcomes Based Curriculums: All such programs should be outcomes-based. That is, both the major part of the curriculum and the general education piece should be defined with deliberation, to assure that both the student and potential employer have a clear idea of what each milestone of the program (certificate, associate, and baccalaureate) means in terms of proficiencies, knowledge, skills and sensibilities.
- Secondary School Outreach: Partnerships must be formed with the secondary school systems and with business and industries which go beyond normal "schools-to-careers" and "tech prep" activities. The goal of such partnerships will be to increase the number of strong secondary students who pursue technology-based education. One way the system can do this is by offering regular summer professional development opportunities for middle school and high school mathematics and science faculty to learn practical applications of their disciplines.
- Magnet School Programs: Secondary students strong in mathematics and science, who also have an identified technical talent should be encouraged to take magnet high school programs which combine college and high school work in applied sciences. These programs could include youth apprenticeship activities.
- Industrial Advisory Boards: Technical baccalaureate programs must be developed and maintained in close cooperation with industry, as illustrated by the industrial advisory boards required by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accreditation standards.
- Required Experiential Learning: All such programs should include a required "live work" experience, provided by a campus-based enterprise, an internship/apprenticeship experience, or a senior (clinic) project.
- Relevant Assessment Criteria: The student's performance in an applied program and her progress toward graduation, should be measured by the quality of her productive work, that is, by the same criteria by which she will be judged a success in her professional life.
Nevada is known as a pragmatic, pioneering state whose thinking has never been restricted by the hidebound and outmoded social ideas of the past.In just this way it should have a post-secondary educational system which matches this pragmatic and pioneering spirit.There is no reason why the best new ideas in American college education in the new century should not come from Nevada.
Carol A. Lucey, Ph.D.