WASHINGTON, D.C. - Higher education can take some core elements of a Davidson College experience, focusing on the practices that develop transferable skills that employers desire, re-imagine them and scale them for many more students, Davidson President Carol Quillen suggested to a Washington audience this week.
Her comments, and exchanges with the group, considered how liberal arts colleges with small enrollments can strengthen higher education's effectiveness in serving large numbers of demographically diverse learners in a rapidly changing economy.
The group of academics, foundation executives, researchers and thought leaders in higher education agreed to look at how they can research ways to expand the cultivation of skills often associated with liberal arts education -- human capital that employers seek. The event was organized by the American Enterprise Institute, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Arizona State University. Participants included representatives from several institutions, including Paul Quinn College and Georgia Tech, Lumina Foundation, Capital One, Walmart and Jobs for the Future, among others.
"We want our students to ask good questions," Quillen told the group, "diagram and visualize complicated problems, develop a strategy to approach a problem, pivot when it's not going anywhere and see the relationships among disparate ideas. This is what we mean by critical thinking."
The group of leaders from large universities, small colleges, community colleges, foundations and think tanks all agreed that employers uniformly seek these skills, often associated with a liberal arts education, combined with internship experience, digital competencies and field-specific skills.
"The key to scalability, I think," Quillen said, "is to figure out what we are doing and not mystify it with ill-defined phrases."
The Davidson experience, with a unique culture of a close and supportive community and experiential learning, cannot be easily and affordably scaled, Quillen said. She focused instead on a set of what she called core, transferable skills that could be developed among larger groups of students at a lower cost.
In addition to critical thinking and communication, Quillen talked about personal attributes.
"Habits of mind, intellectual humility, resolve and empathy," she said, "these are things employers hope their employees will have. We have long claimed that we help our students cultivate these. Let's figure out how to do it in other contexts for more people."
Members of the group, following Quillen's presentation, said they want to pursue research and other efforts toward expanding those skills and plan to start by trying to develop broad agreement on how those skills are defined.