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Real World 101: A New Paradigm in Higher Education

Teaching life skills is a priority for this president.
University Business, Feb 2006

What is the purpose of higher education? It's a question we should ask ourselves daily.

The answers, of course, will vary. Young people attend college to learn critical thinking; to gain exposure to different ideas and philosophies; to illuminate their minds with eons of collected insights on history, literature, art, science, mathematics; to revel in the sheer joy of learning; to forge lifelong friendships; to learn to function--in the areas of laundry, food, budget, love--all while outside the safety of the nest.

These are all valid reasons to pursue the college experience. There is one significant reason, however, that encompasses all of them. And it's a reason I think many schools fail to adequately address: Most students attend college to prepare for life in the Real World.

I am not suggesting that broadening the mind through immersion in theory does not prepare one for life beyond college. I firmly believe it does. I am merely pointing out that there is a wealth of practical knowledge students must grasp in order to succeed in the world outside the classroom. The corridors of corporate America demand a different skill set than the hallowed halls of academia. We must do a better job of teaching these skills.

It used to be accepted practice for employers to take young hires under their wing and teach them what they need to know for their job: how the business world works; what to wear to client meetings; how to manage their time; how to manage company resources--and why these last two items are actually the same.

Fresh-out-of-college employees were viewed as apprentices. To carefully groom them was an investment in the future. The reward was a loyal employee who would be a company asset for many years to come.

Those slow-paced, sepia-toned days are gone now. We're in the middle of an uncertain economy in which many jobs that were once havens for recent graduates--customer-service call center work, for instance--have moved overseas. Competition for the remaining jobs is fierce. I have spent enough time consulting with countless business leaders from all walks of corporate life to know all too well the challenges faced by corporate America.

The harsh truth is that many companies today view new college grads as a hiring risk. Employers don't have the time, money, or wherewithal to teach them the practical skills they need to jump the breach between liability and asset.

This is an unfortunate reality for young people who, sheepskin in hand, strike out in search of their first "real" job. But for universities with the vision to teach these real-world skills to their students, it's also an unprecedented opportunity.

High Point University, a liberal arts school with two North Carolina campuses and approximately 3,000 students, is working to bridge the chasm between university life and, well, life. We have recently instituted a new mandatory course--taught by yours truly--that every student must take before he or she graduates.

Called Life Skills, this course gives students a hefty dose of real-world pragmatism before they leave HPU. The skills they learn, from time management and etiquette to how to gain positive self-esteem, are meant to help them succeed in their academic, professional, and personal lives.

The material covered goes far beyond the basics of business protocol. That's because the characteristics that make a successful, productive business professional are the same ones that make up a healthy human being. We are who we are--at home, at work, and at school.

The corridors of corporate
America demand a
different skill set than
the hallowed halls of

Since High Point University started spreading the real-world gospel, we have been experiencing an outpouring of interest from potential students. In fact, applications for the 2006 freshman class were double what they were a year ago. Open house attendance is up 300 percent. The retention rate, meanwhile, is up 11 percent.

Should other colleges and universities follow HPU's lead? Absolutely! As the economy shifts and businesses become leaner and meaner, people are questioning the nature of traditional education. Is the college experience what it should be? Are students really getting a good ROI? Why am I spending a fortune to send my children to school if they come out unprepared for entry-level jobs?

The further upward tuition spirals, the more fervently college-bound students and their parents will demand more bang for their buck. At universities, we must change the way we think about our own product. Institutions that meet changing consumer demands will succeed; those that don't will find themselves starved of tuition dollars and will flounder.

Commit to ensuring that your institution is destined for continued success. Future business enterprises, our communities, and our children depend on it.

High Point University President Nido Qubein is an author, speaker, and consultant who serves on the board of several national organizations, including the YMCA of the USA. Each year, the Qubein Foundation provides scholarships to 48 young people.

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