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How Post-Secondary Education Is Squandering Human Potential

It’s little wonder that so many Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs — and quitting them. We need new approaches to education beyond high school that give every learner the opportunity to flourish.

A classroom at Arizona State University, which is focused on transformation rather than exclusivity and ranking.
(Laura Sposato/Arizona State University)
Americans have been quitting their jobs in record numbers recently, but they have felt disconnected and discontented in the workplace for quite some time. A Gartner survey taken two years ago found that nearly half of the surveyed workers were “largely dissatisfied” with their jobs. Now, according to LinkedIn, 59 percent are considering switching industries. As much as 35 percent of the U.S. labor force is skills-mismatched, and only a third of students at four-year higher educational institutions believe they will graduate with the skills and knowledge to be successful in the workplace. Employers say graduates lack hard skills.

While critics and reformers are right to claim these trends as evidence of a declining economic edge, they are losing sight of the real problem: We are squandering human potential.

There is a limitlessness to human potential — the capacity of all to discover, develop and deploy their unique aptitudes and gifts so they can benefit themselves and others. Post-secondary education can help unlock this potential, but far too many people aren’t having this experience. This can be avoided, but it requires us to fundamentally rethink how we approach education beyond high school, both public and private, and its connectivity to careers that provide fulfillment and purpose. In short, we need a shift in mental models from the kind of top-down thinking that produced such measures of “success” as seat time, test scores and credit hours to a focus on treating every learner as an individual with distinct needs and potential. The former approach loses sight of what matters most — passions and aptitudes that are unique to each individual.

To address this inexhaustible variation, we need a multitude of adaptable approaches to learning that empowers all so they can flourish. While this challenge is recognized in some educational and philanthropic circles, action currently lags far behind the public’s growing expectations.

Rather than conform, the public is eager to see transformation. In a recent survey by our organization, 61 percent of respondents said universities should do a better job of changing to meet the needs of students, while just 16 percent felt that students needed to do a better job of adjusting to the “tried and tested model” of a traditional four-year college. What’s more, of those seeking to acquire new skills, 72 percent expressed a preference for an option other than a four-year college or university. Most Americans also have a favorable opinion of the kind of career and technical education traditionally offered by their local community colleges and vocational schools.

While many of the leaders atop the oft-cited university rankings continue to focus on exclusivity rather than transformation, institutions like Western Governors University and Arizona State University have risen to the challenge and opened new pathways to millions of students. They are being joined by a growing constellation of providers who recognize that Americans are increasingly open to new credentials. The SkillUp Coalition, for example, is working with Per Scholas, Climb Hire and Coursera to support displaced workers with the tools and resources to get upskilled and hired for high-paying, in-demand jobs. Achieve Partners is working with leading employers to hire apprentices who transition to in-demand careers. And the Mike Rowe Works Foundation is challenging the status quo by working to remove the stigma associated with learners eager to pursue careers in the skilled trades.

These examples are a snapshot of the kinds of experiences that education innovators are developing to unlock the potential of every learner. They also point to a dramatically shifting landscape connecting education and work — one that demands that educators provide flexible, adaptable learning opportunities for students on an ever-expanding range of pathways.

There is no single educational pathway toward success, but multiple experiences are available that reflect the unique attributes of every individual. We need to explore how education can truly become an opportunity for everyone to discover their aptitudes and gifts. Through first recognizing the agency of every learner and designing pathways around who they are, we won’t just create an environment for fulfilling and purposeful careers but can make the idea of wasted potential a thing of the past.

Ryan Stowers is executive director of the Charles Koch Foundation.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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