By Dr. Steve Hicks, Past President of APSCUF and Lock Haven University Faculty Member

I don’t know about you, but I get tired of hearing politicians, board members, and university administrators toss around the buzzwords like “workforce planning” and “program realignment” in what they claim is a need to “reform” higher education.

Rarely do you hear anyone elucidate the meaning of these buzzwords. 

In fact, program realignment was the central point of Chancellor Brogan’s missive to “everyone” on July 30th – right before the collective bargaining agreement’s deadline for the initial retrenchment letter.

It was on our local Meet & Discuss agenda at Lock Haven University that week (“workforce planning”).

What does it mean?  How can the fourteen state system universities realign and reform to get — what?

I have heard this twaddle for years.   Some of the gall was hearing it at Governor Corbett’s post-secondary education commission hearings two summers ago – they changed the name from “higher education commission” when they realized they weren’t talking about higher ed – as at multiple hearings testifiers stood and decried the Commonwealth’s lack of welders!

[A note on welders: according to a source I’ll repeatedly use, the PA Labor & Industry Department High Priority Occupation List, we need all of 528 more welders, cutters, solderers and brazers in the Commonwealth per year.]

Here’s what the Labor & Industry list tells us: there are 27 occupations designated as needing a Bachelor’s degree or more on the list of 106.  How many jobs per year? 10,853.  PASSHE graduates more than double that every year, as do the state-relateds (Pitt, Penn St, Temple); that number is non-sustaining.  What are we reshaping for?

The most needed bachelor’s degree occupation? 1,668 accountants and auditors.  We already do that.

Second?  Marketing research analysts (889).  We already do that. 

Third?  Computer system analysts.  We do that. Maybe not everywhere and in the numbers we need (though there are only 670 jobs per year in PA in this) but it’s not something we need to reform to do.

So, what are we realigning to or for?

This question is even more perplexing when you look at studies about what employers want.   Like this one from the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) from 2013.    Like many other such studies, it turns out executives hiring care more about the generic skills learned at a university, critical thinking, computation, written and oral communication, problem solving, than a specific major.  The much maligned philosophy major, or French major, shockingly! has what they want.   Much reinforced by quality general education (core curriculum) courses and by multiple years of reinforcement in multiple disciplines and multiple courses.

I ask again: what is it we are missing and what are we supposed to “align” with?

Administrators keep saying things like “we need to match the faculty with our student demand.”  They talk about investing in the “high demand programs.”

But universities respond to “high demand” – or anything else – slowly.  This year’s “high demand” is tomorrow’s “out of demand” – remember when journalists were in demand (post-Watergate)?  Remember when school teachers were in high demand (state budget cuts have killed that)?  Instead, universities, as PASSHE schools do, should educate students broadly so they can supply those “soft skills” no matter what the major and adapt from job to job as their lives, our economy, and their goals change – they all will change careers three times.  Worrying about nailing that first job seems short-sighted, which is one thing universities aren’t supposed to be.

I won’t speak here as to why all these “leaders” think higher education needs to reform, but I will say this clearly and soundly: it’s a misguided attempt to get four-year universities to do what they aren’t supposed to (welding?!?!?) and to forget our core aptitude: no matter the major, teaching students to think critically, communicate well, and solve the problems of any prospective employer.  Literally tens of thousands of jobs need those skills and those graduates – we need to keep “forming” students like that and the Commonwealth will be in fine shape.

Instead of program realignment and workforce planning, let’s have some innovative thoughts about how to get more high school graduates into to college, to keep them in college (we need to spend money so high risk 18-year-olds have a real chance of succeeding on campus), and how to mitigate the ever-increasing cost of public higher ed – even as we received flat funding from the state for the third straight year (after the 18% cut in 2011), students are asked to pay 3% more tuition and 15% more in tech fees, when they already average almost a welder’s annual wage in debt when they graduate.  THIS is what politicians, administrators and board members should be focused on: more accessibility, not on the next “hot” (a relative term) program.  The market will take care of that, thank you.