US Universities: Are They Preparing You To Innovate?

As President Obama pointed out in his State of the Union Speech earlier this week, the US is losing ground as compared to other nations in its K-12 education system.  However, the US is still the envy of the world when it comes to its higher education institutions.  Many American universities still attract and retain the best academic minds in the world. Under the tutelage of these stellar faculty members, students at a number of US universities have the unique chance learn from the best when it comes to developing the innovative spirit and the strong implementation skills that every law maker and educator sees as central to economic and social growth in the 21st Century.  Great idea, but does this actually happen?

At American Universities, students indeed have a unique opportunity to really push themselves by going beyond regurgitation when writing papers or answering essay questions in exams.  These students have numerous opportunities during their university education to leverage the falsification method and apply sound hypothesis testing methods to demonstrate their critical thinking and innovative thinking abilities and put forth new twists on old ideas.  Overall, a rigorous university education is a unique accelerator in terms of developing both the entrepreneurial spirit and the self-discipline that are needed to compete in the 21st Century workplace.  Further more, throughout this process, students also learn when to challenge the status quo versus when to conform with best practices to get things done.

Unfortunately, and they offer a number of very rigorous majors that are among the best in the world to train students in entrepreneurial self-discipline, many American universities are also offering their students academic bailouts in the form of majors with minimal requirements in terms of critical thinking or academic rigor.  Many students can therefore choose the path of least resistance and complete their college education without having had to demonstrate much in terms of critical thinking abilities or in terms of self-discipline.  This has been recently confirmed by a new book by sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia.  Their book titled "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses," includes research based on 2,300 students across 24 universities that shows that as many as 45% of college sophomores (and up to 36% of college seniors) do not show any improvements in their critical thinking abilities while in college.  I would love to know what majors these low-performing students have chosen.

Here come the real question though, what can you do in college to get as competitive as possible after you graduate?  Given the current climate at American Universities, it is pretty much your choice and responsibility to choose courses that will challenge you to think critically about complex issues you care about.  Combining coursework in what you love with coursework on how to manage projects and how to effectively communicate with people different from you will pay dividends once you start your career.  Furthermore, it is your responsibility to connect your coursework with the experiential learning and extra-curricular activities (e.g. volunteering, internships) that will enable you to apply your coursework to get business done better.  Doing the right thing is hard.  If you have a Tiger Mom, you are likely to have been well trained in the areas of resilience and self-discipline.  However, due to your lack of experience or success challenging the status quo or the traditions you were brought up in, you might be struggling with the entrepreneurial part of the equation.  In contrast, if you have not had to develop much self-discipline thus far, that is a tough one to tackle.  Imagine that your dorm room heater just broke.  If your first instinct is to call your parents to ask them to fix it for you, I am afraid that you might have a lot to learn in terms of entrepreneurial self-discipline.

As a US student, you are paying a hefty price for their higher education, wouldn't it be best for you to get the best mental training you can get for that money?  The recipe is easy:  Demonstrate that you have learned the required materials for the class, develop a new evidence-based twist on approaching a specific issue, and turn all your papers and deliverables on time.  These simple steps will go a long way in helping you develop the entrepreneurial self-discipline you will need to get business done better after you graduate.

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