Area educators discuss the education-vs.-training dichotomy

 

Recently, former labor secretary Robert Reich told a conference for college and university officials that they needed to resist the temptation to focus on jobs as a measure of the value of their institutions. Reich’s first concern is that colleges and universities become trade schools or vocational schools that are measured by their return on investment. His second concern is that they forget that higher education is not just a private investment, but also a public good.

Reich also said that there was too much focus on employment data, first-year salaries and graduation rates. His position is that college business schools focus on the business of education, or knowing the “why,” and not training, or knowing “how,” thus the need for a solid liberal-arts core blended with an eventual focus on the student’s career field of choice.

On a local level, Reich’s fears seem to be dispelled and there is agreement from our area higher education institutions that both the “why” and the “how” are taught in tandem, resulting in graduates that are well-rounded in the liberal arts and business school skills and ready to enter the workforce.

“I’m a strong believer in the value of liberal arts and I think we’ve done students and our broader community — which includes the business community — a disservice by creating what I call a false opposition between what is needed in the workforce or to build healthy communities and the liberal arts,” says Mary Papazian, president of Southern Connecticut State University. “This is due in part because of the quality of education. It’s the skills and knowledge you develop — your communication skills and your creative-thinking skills — and it embraces all of that and what you learn in the liberal arts. You have a broad basis of knowledge across many disciplines and you never know when you’re going to need that. It’s that quality of being able to learn that ultimately is what business is really looking for.”

Papazian adds that students need to have basic skills, including the ability to read, be literate, speak in complete sentences and do quantitative work as well as understand basic statistics in order to be employed in business.

“The question becomes, ‘How do you put that to use in a business environment?,’” says Papazian, who earned a doctorate in English literature from UCLA. “If a new employee doesn’t know how to learn and have some flexibility of mind, they aren’t going to be successful. They’ll have a very narrow skill set and, as business, the economy and needs change, they will not have the flexibility to change with it. That’s really the key.

“You need the basic skills of literacy, of envisioning things, of being able to take a variety of elements and bring them together, synthesize them into something coherent and be able to assess what is reasonable and clear and what is manipulative and false,” she adds.

Papazian says that employers are demanding that job applicants have the background gleaned from a liberal-arts education as well as the skills learned in business education courses.

“These are all qualities that ultimately business needs for success,” she explains. “The beauty now is that employers are now saying it. They are saying, ‘Give us somebody who has a basic solid education and knows how to learn and we can teach them what they need to know for our particular business.’ ”

Papazian says that students need the experience of connecting what they’ve learned to the real world. That’s where SCSU’s internships, service learning and connections with the business community come into play.

“We need to create the bridge for them, but if we educate them vocationally, and very narrowly in a particular skill for a particular business that exists today, it may not exist by the time they graduate,” says Papazian. “It may not exist in five or ten years, and they won’t be able to move over time into positions of leadership within their organizations. We educate both for economic impact and also for democratic impact — and the two, frankly, have to come together.”

SCSU offers BS degrees in business administration with concentrations in accounting, business economics, finance, international business, management, management information systems and marketing; an MBA in business administration; and an accelerated MBA for fall 2014.

 “In some ways, I think it’s somewhat of a false dichotomy in my view,” says Matthew L. O’Connor, dean of the School of Business and Engineering at Quinnipiac University. “At the college level, I’m not sure that there’s a clear breakdown on teaching them only the ‘how’ to do something and not the ‘why’ of what they’re doing. There are people on the liberal arts side of the equation who might say, for example, that engineering is in the training camp. But clearly, you don’t get to be an engineer without going through a liberal arts curriculum as well. All of these are the preparation work for your area of specialization, be it engineering or business. You’ll be utilizing all these skills too. The two go hand in hand.”

“It’s true of business in that you can’t understand the emerging fields of business analytics, finance or accounting without a solid background in mathematics,” says O’Connor, who earned a doctorate in finance from Syracuse University. “You still need the basics of a traditional liberal arts and sciences background to be able to be successful in any kind of business curriculum. Too much time and energy is wasted on the differences between what we call the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ in higher education. Many of the professional fields require strong elements of traditional arts and sciences as either preparation or co-educational activities, depending on how the curriculum is designed.”

O’Conner says that critical thinking, writing and creativity are not exclusive to the traditional arts and sciences canon.

“Students learn a lot about critical thinking,” O’Connor explains. “They improve their creativity in their arts and sciences classes that they take as part of general education. But they also learn it through intensive writing and analytical thinking classes that occur in the business curriculum as well. I don’t see the breakdown of one camp does one thing [teaches why] and the other camp does the other [teaches how]. I think there is much more interplay than it’s given credit for, and that neither side has exclusivity.”

O’Connor says Quinnipiac has a strong internship program that gives students the chance to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom while sampling a career they might be exploring as the one they’ll eventually choose as their own. He adds that employers increasingly use an internship as their first screening for the ultimate hiring process.

“For students, it’s no longer just a good idea to do an internship because you’ll get a feel for the career or you’ll get to decide if this is something that’s right for you and you get to apply some things you learned in the classroom,” O’Connor says. “It’s really more about where your first level of job evaluation is occurring. Depending upon which field they choose, [students] get a chance to see how work life is in that field. If they’re an accounting student, they’re going to see what it’s like to be in an accounting firm. They may go on an audit for accounting or, if they’re in marketing, they may see what it’s like to work in marketing research.

“They’re not only going to experience what the technical job details might be like for them but also what the environment is like for them,” O’Connor adds. “Employers are increasingly using their internship pool to make their entry-level hiring decisions so the candidates that have the best jobs for an entry-level full-time position upon graduation are the candidates that did a good job in their internship with that company.”

“At Albertus, we try to achieve a balance,” explains Nancy Fallon, who chairs the Department of Business Administration & Management at Albertus Magnus College. “I don’t really see it as a dichotomy. I see it as something that is what you need to do to prepare students. We are a strong liberal-arts college and we haven’t watered down our business programs at all. Students take a very integrated gen-ed [general-education] program that we’ve built over the past few years. We’re testing the critical thinking between cases and problem-solving and we’re making strides. It’s not always easy in this world, but I think that we do a very good job at it.”

AMC offers BS degree programs in accounting, business administration, finance, computer information systems, general business and business management, with subsets in international business management, marketing management, human-resources management and health-care management. It also offers an MBA in accounting, leadership, human resources, marketing and project management; an MS in accounting, management and organizational leadership, and human services; and an MA in leadership. Fallon notes that students enrolled in a business degree program also participate in internship programs.

“It’s not the only thing they take part in, but in our internship programs we really try to go out and get the experience so they see what it’s like in the profession in which they’re interested,” says Fallon, who earned a doctorate in organization and management from Capella University. “Right now, we have a big push college-wide on what we call ‘experiential learning.’ For the business department, we’ve always had internships, but now we’re focusing on research that’s based on the practical and on field work, hopefully with mentors taking part. We’re talking about doing a mentorship program for this because we have great relationships with many alumni who want to work with our students, whether on an internship or a project.”

Fallon adds that the business department is developing a speaker series that will feature business professionals who will come and speak to students on various topics including careers.

“We’ve set up business advisory boards for our business students,” Fallon says. “In the past year, we’ve been looking at our curriculum and asking what we should do looking forward to engage students and prepare them for future careers.”

“UNH would be fully aligned with Reich’s comments that we try to blend a traditional liberal-arts education with specific business academic preparation as well as a mixture of professional experience,” says Daniel J. May, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at the University of New Haven. “That is historically part of our school, so I think we’d be firmly in that camp.”

UNH offers a BS in business management including studies in accounting, finance, marketing, economics, quantitative analysis, business law and data management; a BS in accounting, finance or marketing; a BA in economics; and a BS in management of sports industries, a unique area of specialization. Graduate degrees include an MBA in business administration; an Executive MBA (EMBA); an MS in health-care administration, labor relations, taxation or management of sports industries; and an MPA in public administration.

“We have a third of our undergraduate degrees geared toward general education — the ‘why’ part of any degree,” says May, who earned a doctorate in geology from the University of California/Santa Barbara. “About half is geared toward business preparation. And within business preparation, there is also a focus that reemphasizes some of the core skills included in general education like communication and teamwork. A lot of the things that are advocated within a traditional general education program are reinforced within the business program itself.”

May adds that one UNH business program, called Professional Edge, is a four-year course that teaches one how to build general skills and competencies as well as experiencing the working world.

“Professional Edge is designed to reinforce those skills in a specific curriculum,” May explains. “There are elective courses that students can pursue, or internship and externship opportunities. I think that at comprehensive universities, we do a better job than liberal-arts colleges per se in preparing students for the world of work. In accounting and finance, we’re finding that there are tremendous opportunities for jobs in this part of the world.”

Concludes SCSU’s Papazian: “I recently had a conversation with Michael Dell [of Dell Computers] during a conference I attended and I asked him ‘What are you looking for, generally, in a potential employee?’ He said that aside from technical skills, he looks for three things: multi-disciplinary skills, multi-cultural appreciation and communication skills. Is that not the liberal arts?

“You’ll find this with CEOs of major companies because they can teach employees the specifics, but you need to bring the ability to learn beyond that,” Papazian adds. “That’s why we have to get away from talking about pure workforce training as if it doesn’t involve development of the mind and the ability to develop the skills and knowledge that an educated person needs to have in order to succeed.”