By Jay Olle
Innovations in mass media, the global scope of business and the need for experience before one can get a job have combined with a flood of college graduates. These factors have forced the University of Wisconsin-Madison to provide its students with new training and a unique slate of offerings to keep them competitive as graduates.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau report from March 2011, more than 30 percent of U.S. citizens over the age of 25 had a bachelor’s degree, and close to 11 percent had a master’s degree. These large increases have changed a college degree’s place in our society. This may concern some who worry about the value of their expensive degree, but Steve Schroeder, Assistant Dean and undergraduate program director at the UW-Madison Business School, thinks the increases will not affect the utility of a bachelor’s degree.
Schroeder compared the bachelor’s degree today to the high school degree from previous decades.
“The flip side is that there are more jobs today that require a bachelor’s degree,” Schroeder said.
Some fear that many bachelor degrees are becoming pieces of paper unable to help students acquire employment as the economy puts less emphasis on liberal arts degrees.
UW-Madison economics professor Robert Haveman thinks the high number of graduates’ difficulty finding jobs is a result of a down economy recovering from a recession. It is difficult to tell if any imbalance in jobs is permanent.
“It’s not like you have an undergrad degree and it’s hard to get work. It’s hard to get work for anybody,” Haveman said.
Schroeder said the value of education remains high but is worth considering if we are producing people in the right majors. He points to discussion over how valuable the ever-popular MBA degree will be in the future.
“It’s partly the sheer number of people getting MBAs, but it is also the sheer number of programs,” Schroeder said. ”You can’t go down the interstate without seeing University ‘X’ has an MBA program.”
Schroeder thinks bachelor degrees will continue to be in demand as large numbers of baby boomers retire.
“We are going to be retiring more than we are producing college graduates in this country,” Schroeder said. “There is going to be a shortage. We have the demand now for more educated people than we had before.”
Focus has been placed on the trouble liberal arts degrees have faced in the job market, but Professor Haveman said the market will eventually change.
“There may be too many BAs for the demand,” Haveman said. “But give it time, and the wages will fall. Eventually employers will come back up again.”
But in today’s tough job market it is important for students to stand out to employers. Colleges are providing their students with more opportunities for international experience.
Adapting to globalized markets
In the Business School, Schroeder says changes are made in response to moves made by corporate America and not solely on the basis of what a bachelor’s degree means.
The economy has become global; business is now carried out across countries. This was the driving factor behind adding an international business major and reaching out to other countries, specifically in the East.
“We are sending more students to China,” he said. “Our Dean and the Chancellor of the university are going to be signing new study abroad agreements with China.”
This new agreement is indicative of the changing world the Business School wants to prepare its students for.
“Instead of sending our students to Western Europe
–which is a great place to visit—that’s not necessarily where business is occurring,” Schroeder said. “China, India, Brazil and so on, are where we are focused.”
Schroeder said there continues to be a demand for business undergraduates, and the school will continue to focus on innovation.
The School of Engineering is also putting a greater emphasis on China.
The school has a two-month summer program where students travel to Hangzhou. They tour factories, many of which have UW-Madison ties, and interact with workers and management first-hand.
Amanda Hammatt, director of International Engineering Studies and Programs, says graduates with experience in China are in demand.
“Because it has picked up speed relatively recently, a lot of people in the workforce right now don’t have experience working with China or have never traveled to China,” Hammatt said. “So the students who are going there now are coming in with that experience and it’s very valuable.”
Much of the experience is as simple as knowing basic greetings and customs.
“A student who feels comfortable going into a different culture, especially one in China, which is so significantly different, may be a valuable ambassador in the future from their company,” Hammatt said.
To meet increased demand from students and employers, international engineering is looking into creating a semester abroad program to China.
Some UW-Madison departments have implemented curriculum changes.
CALS is a large school containing 19 academic departments, ranging from dairy science to biochemistry.
John Klatt, Assistant Dean in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, said the recent requirement from freshmen to take a seminar course is a way to prepare them professionally early in their collegiate years and expose them to what CALS has to offer.
By helping guide students from the start, Klatt hopes to help students improve career preparation.
“The institution is so large and complex that if we don’t start right away with freshmen class students, they could easily be sophomores or juniors before they start hearing about internships and research experiences,” Klatt said. “They don’t always have time to complete them before they graduate.”
The seminars also serve the purpose of exposing students to different academic aspects of the college. Students are given a series of lectures exposing them to big-topic areas, such as food safety, environmental stability, genetically modified food, world hunger and malnutrition and water quality.
A typical freshman course load is bogged down with general requirements. Klatt sees the freshman seminar as a way to show students that they will eventually reach their areas of interest.
“It can be hard to look past the freshman year when they are buried in calculus and general chemistry,” Klatt said. “This one-credit summary gives them a window into not just the content they will be studying as upperclassmen, but also the application of the content and why it makes a difference worldwide.”
In the case of the journalism department, the entire program was modified to help students.
The program was revamped more than a decade ago when UW-Madison implemented its convergence curriculum, the first of its kind in the nation. Instead of separating new students into separate paths based on what career they plan to pursue, the curriculum was streamlined, placing all students together.
Journalism Professor Robert Drechsel said the change was driven by the desire to develop a strong skill foundation and the realization that students will likely change careers.
“The most important thing to do is find the right balance between giving people basic skills and intellectual tools they need to get their first job,” Drechsel said. “But also balance that with the kind of background people need to be adaptable, flexible people who can ultimately comfortably move through a variety of careers. “
As the head of the school’s undergraduate curriculum committee, Drechsel says flexibility is needed for students to adapt to changing technology. The committee tries to remain as up-to-date as possible with industry innovations and the advent of multimedia, but Drechsel acknowledges they can only do so to an extent.
“Some of us remember a typewriter world,” he said. “So when you think about the changes that have occurred in a very short period of time, you have to think to yourself it is a losing game to try and stay ahead of that in a very specific hands on way.”
But the main focus remains on a skills foundation.
“You know the fundamentals underlying whatever form of presentation you use remains the same,” Drechsel said. “Good skills and figuring out how to gather and present data or information of different kinds. Good, solid writing skills: That’s not going to change no matter what the presentation is.”
Drechsel has seen positive results from the switch to the new curriculum. Students are coming into their upper-level classes better prepared.
“They are coming in with much stronger multimedia skills,” Drechsel said. “I don’t have to teach them any of the basics because I can assume these are the skills that people come in with. They are going to know about visual composition. They are going to know how to put a slideshow together. There’s a lot more consistency and rigor. Students are coming in with a strong work ethic.”
Jessica Jones, marketing communication specialist with the UW-Extension Department of Engineering and Professional Development, graduated from the Wisconsin School of Journalism in 2003. She has worked in business reporting, copy writing for catalogs and performed web formatting and coding for a non-profit organization.
In the working world, she found that employers were looking for more than just writing skills. They wanted to hire employees who could use Adobe InDesign, write HTML code, or had experience with recording audio or working with video production.
Jones felt unprepared out of college for the expertise wanted by employers.
“I was unprepared for how technical I was expected to be,” Jones said. “ I think people who have a technical skill set had an edge in the job market.”
However, she thinks the Wisconsin School of Journalism has made additions to its program that help students build these skills.
“Courses like message-crafting for strategic communication students, we didn’t have that,” Jones said. “Or the multimedia classes and digital graphics. It seems like they have really gone from a history of mass communication and very theoretical to a real skills level, which is good. It’s what grads are going to run into.”