President Knapp Discusses Future of Higher Education

Dr. Knapp and other GW participants join thought leaders at Milken Institute 2016 Global Conference.

President Knapp Discusses Future of Higher Education
President Steven Knapp talks about the future of higher education with moderator Jeffrey Selingo at the four-day Milken Institute 2016 Global Conference in Los Angeles. (Courtesy Photo)
May 04, 2016

By Tamara Jones

Career orientation can no longer be treated as “an afterthought” in liberal arts education if traditional colleges hope to stay relevant in a high-skilled digital world, George Washington President Steven Knapp said at the four-day Milken Institute 2016 Global Conference in Los Angeles.

Addressing a panel on College to Career: Reimagining Higher Education for the 21st Century Workforce, Dr. Knapp stressed the importance of integrating real-world experiences such as internships with the classroom so students can develop the soft skills employers are demanding “at the same time they are succeeding in the majors that reflect their passions and their interests.”

“Employers tell us they are looking for skills like critical thinking, problem solving, working collaboratively in teams, having a fair amount of flexibility and ability to operate in a digital environment and so on,” Dr. Knapp said.

Moderated by journalist Jeffrey Selingo, the discussion on Monday focused on ways traditional and Internet-based universities, governments and corporations “can collaborate to close the skills gaps in our economy and provide young people with affordable career-development alternatives,” according to the Milken Institute.

Colleges must “do a much better job” of developing those skills without watering down the traditional focus of liberal arts disciplines, Dr. Knapp said.

Fellow panel member Eric Spiegel, president and CEO of Siemens USA, said his company struggles to find recent college graduates who are adequately prepared to enter a workforce that is dominated by software.

“We hire several thousand people a year in the U.S.,” Mr. Spiegel said. “Less than 10 percent of those are right out of college. That’s changed a lot over the last 10 or 15 years.” When new graduates come with “much higher expectations for an opening salary” but still require two- to three-years of apprenticeship training, he said, “it’s a very tough sell.”

Dr. Knapp agreed that the education system is behind in “making the productivity gains in technology that other industries have enjoyed.”

“If you went to an automobile factory 100 years ago and went today, it would be unrecognizable,” he said. “If you went to a classroom today, the only difference is the blackboard would be a whiteboard. Otherwise, they’re pretty much the same.”

The traditional way colleges have gauged student success is equally outmoded, Dr. Knapp suggested, noting that accrediting organizations are increasingly pushing schools to measure outcomes beyond the grade book, taking into account, for example, how well students integrate practical experiences such as internships with academics.

“You can’t assume because you’ve got a subject matter you’re presenting in articulate fashion, with witty lectures and so on, that that means the skills are being developed,”  he said.

Two members of  GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health were also among the conference’s 700-plus speakers exploring “today’s most pressing challenges in financial markets, industry sectors, health, government and education.”

Dean Lynn Goldman participated in a session titled Public Health: The Key to Prosperity, while Loretta DiPietro, professor and chair of the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, was a panelist debating Prescription for a Longer (and Healthier) Life.