Choosing a college and what to study; author says consider soft skills

MIDDLEBURY — Every year, national newspapers are overrun with headlines about how getting into college has become more difficult than ever before. Yet, as Jeffrey Selingo argued Monday afternoon before a crowd of 50 people in Middlebury College’s Dana Auditorium, those stories largely miss the point.
While a small number of private colleges have gotten progressively more selective, the percentage of students across the country that are accepted into college has held stable at 65 percent. It’s only because the national media focuses disproportionately on the former category of schools that the American public is led to think otherwise, he said.
As a former top editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education with multiple award-winning columns and best-selling books under his belt, Selingo is one of the leading experts in identifying trends in higher education. His Middlebury talk, titled “Higher Education: How the Press Shapes Private Gains over Public Good,” drew from his latest book, “There Is Life After College.” On Monday he explored how the media influences public perception of quality in higher education and how students today should be navigating school to best prepare themselves for the workforce of tomorrow.
Selingo explained the ways media distorts public perception of the current state of U.S. higher education.
According to his research, 80 percent of American undergraduates attend public universities (50 percent go to community colleges) and only 20 percent enroll in four-year, private institutions like Middlebury College. Despite the fact that private, four-year, undergraduate colleges and universities serve only a fifth of the student population, these types of institutions are dramatically over-represented in coverage of American higher education — a bias that exists because most members of the national media went to them, Selingo said.
“The newsrooms of major publications and network news are full of graduates of elite, mostly private, four-year colleges,” he said. “When I was a reporter at The Chronicle, I could count on one hand — in a newsroom of 60 people — the number of reporters who went to public universities, and most of them went to elite public universities like University of Virginia, Michigan and Berkeley, which are hardly, in some ways, public universities.”
According to Selingo, this media blind spot for public universities has caused one of biggest stories in higher education to go virtually unnoticed by the press: the widespread disinvestment by states in public colleges and universities.
In the past, public colleges and universities were seen as a worthy investment for the public good but now are seen as a vehicle for private gain, he said.
“Today, more than 30 states spend less on public higher education than they did in the year before the Great Recession in 2008 and, according to one analysis, more than half the states will be out of the business of higher education by the year 2050,” he said.
This philosophical and financial shift has consequences for students, especially when it comes to tuition.
“A decade ago, students at public colleges and universities paid for about one third of the cost of their education. Today, they’re on track to pay for more than half and, in half the states, they already do,” he said.
Beyond raising tuition, many public universities are admitting more out-of-state and international students to generate more revenue, leaving fewer places for in-state students, Selingo said.
With costs rising for a bachelor’s degree, Selingo set out to examine the value of a diploma in what he calls “the workforce of tomorrow.” To determine what skills employers are looking for in new employees, Selingo spent the last two years meeting with organizations of all kinds and sizes, from government agencies and nonprofits to tech companies like Facebook and larger organizations like Enterprise Rent-a-Car, which he said hires more college graduates than any other company in the United States.
By and large, he found that companies were looking for “soft skills” — curiosity, creativity, grit, digital awareness, contextual thinking and humility came up again and again, he said.
To provide a concrete example, Selingo referenced a study he conducted in collaboration with Burning Glass, a data analytics firm in Boston.
Together, they collected information from 20 million job ads and tracked which skills employers listed as necessary. They found that 80 percent of those listings repeated the same 25 skills; the top five were: communication and writing, organizational skills and planning, problem solving, detail/attentiveness and Microsoft Excel.
In light of this information, Selingo concluded his talk by urging Monday’s audience to broaden their ideas about the value of higher education — to think less about pursuing a particular degree or GPA and more about seeking out the kinds of experiences that allow students to develop the softer skills that today’s employers are seeking.
“We need to leave college with much more than (a degree and a transcript) because it’s how you go to college — it’s the experiences that you have — that will have much more value in the workplace of tomorrow,” he said.
Editor’s Note: David Fuchs is a junior at Middlebury College and an intern at the Addison Independent.

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