When College Is a Means to an End: How Do You Reach College Students Who Are Only Enrolled to Develop Marketable Skills Rather Than Critical-Thinking Skills?

By Kessler, Bree | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, November 25, 2010 | Go to article overview

When College Is a Means to an End: How Do You Reach College Students Who Are Only Enrolled to Develop Marketable Skills Rather Than Critical-Thinking Skills?


Kessler, Bree, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


Out of frustration and in an effort to postpone a quiz, which the students just admitted to not have known about given their failure to consult the syllabus, I asked each student in my "Introduction to Psychology" course to tell me why s/he was attending this expensive private college in New York. I wanted them to hear each other so that they would collectively feel the gravity of their unified response: "I am here because I want a high-paying job and I know that I need to go to college to get that." I have since facilitated this exercise in large public institutions in New York and Hawaii and have met nearly the same response, with subtle variations, in each setting.

Over the past six months, nearly every major news outlet has barraged us with stories titled, "Is College Worth it?" The articles define "worth" solely in economic terms and usually weigh the pros and cons of attending a four-year college while incurring severe debt. Several of these articles have suggested that four-year colleges may not be worth it in our economy. Yet, in September, The Wail Street Journal used research from the Economic Policy Institute to publish a story that reported college was worthwhile because the degree leads to better job security in comparison with individuals who do not hold an undergraduate degree.

As a social-science educator, I have never created a syllabus with job preparation in mind. My curricula are modeled off Paolo Freire's notions of critical thinking and participatory classrooms. Oftentimes, after the usual period of adjustment, I think this mode of teaching works well. But in the last year, as job prospects have shrunk for graduating students, the students have met my pedagogy with resistance or ambivalence.

Although not always obvious to an undergraduate student, I maintain that classes, which increase thinking skills, are invaluable--even in the marketplace. The students are less convinced. Students want skills to put on their resumes and "critical thinker" does not fare well next to "Swahili" or "geographic information systems." So how do we teach to those who are solely in college as a means to an end? How can we make social-science instruction worth it educationally and not just monetarily?

Each semester I have tried a variety of solutions to this predicament. Last year while teaching "Introduction to Urban Studies" at Hunter College, I integrated two "marketable" projects into the syllabus. …

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