by John Stratton
Southeastern Connecticut has exemplary educational institutions; they graduate excellent students ready to take on the world. But what kind of world?
The emerging global economy has caused some specializations to become… too specialized. Other, more broadly based disciplines have become… too broad. Talented graduates can face obsolescence or irrelevance as they search for jobs. But the jobs themselves are both scarce and changing.
But one of the guiding principles of higher education, the ability to think creatively based on deep knowledge of basic, core principles within any field, won’t go out of style, say regional educators. In fact, they will yield new industries and add new strength to existing ones.
An October 15 Business Breakfast organized by the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut drew together a panel of college presidents to reflect on “Education in a Global Economy” for an audience of some 100 business, civic, and legislative leaders. The forum was held at the Hilton Mystic and featured Michael Alfultis, director of the University of Connecticut campus at Avery Point; Leo Higdon, president of Connecticut College; Dr. Grace S. Jones, president of Three Rivers Community College; and Mary Ellen Jukoski, president of Mitchell College.
U.S. Congressman Joe Courtney kicked off the discussion, emphasizing, “Jobs and the economy are issues one, two, and three” in the political arena, adding that the debate “should not be partisan—there is overlap in agreement” between the political parties. “Workforce investment through education percolates upwards,” leading to better jobs in the area, he said.
Higdon, of Connecticut College, stressed the “importance of a higher education-business partnership” and acknowledged that the four institutions “have our distinctive missions; students can choose among them as they select a career path.” He noted that Connecticut has some 4000 alumni in the state, and 1500 in Southeastern Connecticut. The skills obtained from Conn’s “highly individualized and highly personalized curriculum are adaptable to a changing job market. Our students are action-oriented, and they have the ability to learn,” he said.
Alfultis, of Avery Point, also asserted the virtues of the liberal arts, which he called “more important than ever in providing a ‘nimble and flexible’ skill set. We have to remind people that, when the economy is uncertain, liberal arts allow transitions between job sectors.”
Mitchell’s Jukoski reviewed her college’s recent changes to its curriculum, which underscored competencies that apply both to college life and to workforce development. Mitchell, she said, encourages students to analyze “what you are strong in and how you can navigate your learning into a job area.” It gathers academic experience into a “capstone” program which is relevant to the economy—and to “lifelong learning,” she said.
Jones, of Three Rivers, outlined her institution’s successes with students in several communities, ranging from students who “need to have a step up” to adapt to college demands, to job-targeted certification programs in specific fields. Together they operate under a philosophy which “trains for the world.”
The educators agreed that the cost of higher education is growing, and that new systems of grants and scholarships—as well as distance-learning programs—must evolve to offer some financial relief. Students and their families and need protection from rising interest rates that can make the costs of loans hard to bear.
Alfultis received applause when he commented that “It’s more expensive to go to college than to buy a house. I think that’s wrong.”
He and the other educators agreed that special programs are needed need to reach groups such as veterans, who are poised to make great contributions to the economy. Advanced education, he said, “is an achievable goal.”