When prospective employers spoke, Ripon College listened.
If there is a perpetual tug-of-war between colleges and the business community, it is a long-standing one over the knowledge students gain while pursuing a degree and the skills they will need to survive and thrive in the workplace. For a long time, the business community has argued there is a lack of alignment between the curriculum and the practical.
In 2015, the leadership and faculty of Ripon College decided to address the gap head on.
“The sense was that the curriculum was not exactly in agreement with what the business community wanted from our graduates,” says Ed Wingenbach, vice president and dean of faculty at Ripon College. “We challenged ourselves with the question of ‘what should every Ripon College graduate be able to do regardless of major?’”
Employers have certainly been vocal about what they want. In recent studies, the top abilities they want employees to have mastered in school are oral and written communication skills, working effectively in teams, analytical thinking and applying skills to real-world situations.
“It’s not that we weren’t teaching these things,” Wingenbach says, “but we were not necessarily doing it intentionally across disciplines.”
Challenged by Ripon College President Zach P. Messitte to find a way to incorporate the skills employers were looking for that would find its way into the college’s liberal arts curriculum, Wingenbach and the faculty created Catalyst, a five-course concentration that all students, regardless of major, must take as part of the hours required to earn a degree.
They did it in just six months.
Presented as a series of seminars in applied innovation, the courses build upon one another as a student moves from year to year, and are built around the skills employers say are most needed in the workplace. The classes start with research basics such as writing and reasoning, then add critical thinking and teamwork.
The sequence is capped by a seminar class in which the students, working in both teams and as individuals, tackle large, open-ended problems, research and develop strategies to address them and present those proposals at a public forum near the end of the semester.
“Why shouldn’t an anthropology student be able to do those things?” Messitte says, adding that career information indicates a graduate will work in several fields during a career. “That’s what they are going to be asked to do on the job, and they will have already done it here.”
The Catalyst curriculum was implemented in the fall of 2016. It has been built into the curriculum so that students can still graduate in four years — no doubt a relief to parents and students seeking to keep educational costs under control.
The new approach caught the attention of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which granted $800,000 to Ripon College to implement the Catalyst curriculum. Spread out during the next four years, the grant will support the creation of up to 140 seminars designed to develop the transferable skills employers seek.
Additionally, the money will support visits by outside experts and allow the college to send faculty to national conferences to share the lessons learned with the broader educational community. The Arthur Vining Davis Foundation and Associated Colleges of the Midwest’s Faculty Career Enhancement Program have also provided additional support.
Because Catalyst is a new approach, faculty have greater freedom to custom design the content and incorporate cutting-edge research into the curriculum. So far, the reception among the faculty has been supportive, Wingenbach says.
“Many have responded positively because it takes the restrictions off,” Wingenbach says. “Some of the Catalyst courses are really creative and explore some areas where there is a lot of current interest.”
Since the program culminates in the exploration of large-scale problems society is facing, students will be doing research on the same political and business issues they will work with after graduation, Messitte says.
“That is real-world knowledge that impacts local and regional businesses,” he says. “We want the same things the employers want — we want our students to be successful.”