Where are “Soft” Skills in College Prep?

I recently had the opportunity to travel to another culture – by which I mean, K-12. Though I have spent most of my career in higher education, one of my current consulting clients is a public charter school network. This network has been extraordinarily successful at getting its graduates – who are overwhelmingly poor, minority, and first-generation — into college. Unfortunately, like too many schools, it has been less successful at preparing them to persist in college. To its credit, the network is well aware of the problem and committing resources to addressing it.

It is has been instructive to examine the familiar disconnect between college access and college success – from the perspective of the high school.

Higher education has done a reasonable job of communicating college admissions requirements to high schools (though the whole process remains much more mysterious than it needs to be, especially to first generation students). But it has not done nearly enough to communicate to high school students – or, for that matter, to college students — what expectations are for college-level learning. The focus is too often on academic requirements (e.g., this many credits of math to graduate, this many credits in the major). The focus is rarely on academic competencies: what exactly does someone need to know and be able to do in order to succeed in college?

I believe that competencies provide an essential vehicle for understanding learning itself more deeply – not what do I want to teach – or even, what do I want my students to do in my course – but rather, what do I want my students to be able to do as a result of this course? Higher ed now has a well-established college success industry, which includes textbooks, first year seminars, dedicated advisors, and teaching and learning centers. But few colleges and universities give prospective students a clear idea of what they will be able to do by the time they graduate, much less year by year. Can you imagine knowing as a high school student what competencies you will need to develop by the time you get to college – not to mention which competencies you will develop in college, how you will demonstrate them, and how they apply to the real world? I know that most colleges and universities have institutional outcomes, which are laboriously tagged to courses, mainly in General Education. But, like Gen Ed itself, these have turned into more requirements for students to check off – not meaningful guideposts to educational expectations.

What I have found striking about my conversations with my client and others in the K-12 world is that these competencies — critical thinking, digital fluency, written and verbal communication, problem-solving, quantitative (and financial) literacy – most members of C-BEN can recite the list — are not considered fundamental to success in college. Why? Ironically, they are not considered “academic” because they do not belong within the purview of any one discipline. No one doubts that they are important, but they are not perceived as intrinsic to college preparation and to success in college.

My client and the majority of K-12 are not alone in this; many colleges and universities have essentially the same attitude. From their perspective, what matters is the “knowing,” not the “doing,” in the memorable language of the C-RAC framework. And “knowing” means content knowledge, not transferable skills. As Jack Ma has pointed out, however, “the content knowledge orientation of education has not changed significantly in 200 years. But we will fail if we do not change.” In essence, he urges us to shift the focus of education from the acquisition of content to the development of human competencies that machines cannot compete with: creative problem-solving, teamwork, innovation. Whether we call them “soft skills,” “21st century skills” or — the term I prefer — “human+ skills,” these are the capabilities that will help robot-proof our students. And the even better news is that employers are desperate – right now — to hire people who have them.

Even those of us in the CBE world (which now includes many K-12 systems) are sometimes guilty of dividing “soft” and “hard” skills, and of relegating “soft” skills to the “nice to have,” and hard skills to the “must have” category. But the research is abundantly clear that these competencies are essential to success in college and in the workplace. We in higher education need to keep this firmly in mind –- and we need to spread the word to our colleagues in K-12.


By Kate Kazin

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