Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

The Value of Student Agency

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

The Value of Student Agency

Article excerpt

Not surprisingly, parents and college students alike often wonder what employers are looking for in new employees. Research recently conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities 1 provides a clear signal that they're searching for individuals with a broad set of skills and capabilities rather than those with narrow but deep knowledge in a specific field.

More specifically, the study which surveyed more than 300 employers found that:

* 93% said that candidates' demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major;

* 91% said that, whatever their major, all students should have experiences in solving problems with colleagues whose views are different from their own; and

* 95% agreed that their companies put a priority on hiring people with the intellectual and interpersonal skills to help them contribute to innovation in the workplace.

When these same employers were asked about the characteristics that colleges and universities should stress to ensure that their graduates were best positioned to be productive in the workplace, they recommended a suite of traits traditionally associated with the core of a liberal arts education. For example:

* 82% wanted more attention paid to critical thinking/analytical reasoning;

* 81% wanted more attention paid to ability to analyze/solve complex problems;

* 80% wanted more attention devoted to improving oral and written communication skills; and

* 67% were interested in more teamwork/collaboration in diverse group settings.

The question that should immediately spring to mind is, how might students best acquire the attributes employers so clearly articulate and value? While there's no single answer that will be the perfect response for all people, I want to explore an under-recognized possibility, a possibility that has been shown to positively and powerfully lead to success in some students.

In the constellation of American colleges and universities there is a collection of institutions that offers students a rich liberal arts education while asking them to think deeply about their academic choices. The theme that ties these schools together is their belief in the importance of student agency--the concept that students should be in control of their educational decisions rather than following a prescribed path determined by others.

The institutions in this category typically don't have traditional majors. Instead, students, with guidance from faculty mentors, choose courses, programs of study, independent learning opportunities and internships to craft a concentration that suits their specific needs and desires.

The statement that introduces Bennington College's student handbook describes the process remarkably well:

Bennington regards education as a sensual
and ethical, no less than an intellectual,
process. It seeks to liberate and nurture
the individuality, the creative intelligence,
and the ethical and aesthetic sensibility of
its students, to the end that their richly varied
natural endowments will be directed
toward self-fulfillment and toward constructive
social purposes. … 
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