Drownproofing for a Knowledge Economy

The original — and very literal — drownproofing course at Georgia Tech is no longer required, but a different kind of drownproofing is necessary for graduates to do well in a knowledge economy.

| December 2015

  • "Drownproofing" for college graduates may involve colleges and businesses working together to develop apprenticeship programs for students.
    Photo by Fotolia/Monkey Business
  • In “Higher Education and Employability,” Peter J. Stokes discusses several universities that have adopted ambitious collaborative programs with businesses to provide graduates with the skills they need to advance in a knowledge economy.
    Cover courtesy Harvard Education Press

In Higher Education and Employability (Harvard Education Press, 2015), Peter J. Stokes argues that colleges and universities can better serve the educational and professional interests of their students by collaborating with the businesses seeking to employ them. Collaboration between education and profession has never been more crucial, nor have the opportunities for partnership ever been greater. The following excerpt is from chapter one, “Drownproofing 2.0.”

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In 1940, a swimming instructor at the Georgia Institute of Technology by the name of Fred Lanoue — known affectionately to his students as Crankshaft due to a limp he had acquired while in the Navy — introduced a daunting new course into the university curriculum called Drownproofing, during which students were thrown into a pool with their hands and feet bound. Crankshaft’s job was to teach these students how to maintain a vertical floating position and effectively manage their breathing in order to survive in the water for long periods under challenging circumstances.

In time, the twenty-two-hour water survival course became a graduation requirement at Georgia Tech, striking fear into the hearts of swimmers and nonswimmers alike, many of whom put off taking Drowning 101, as it became known, until their senior year. As well as inspiring fear among students, though, the course also signaled the resolve and toughness of Georgia Tech’s graduates, and it became a revered tradition on campus well into the late 1980s, when it ceased to be a required course.



The spirit of drownproofing lives on at Georgia Tech, however, as Steve McLaughlin, the chair of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, explained to me in the winter of 2014. Think of it as Drownproofing 2.0, McLaughlin said: “Tying students’ hands and feet together and throwing them in the pool — that ended more than twenty years ago. But a ‘drownproofing’ life skill is something we still do today. It’s survival under pressure. It gives you a confidence that you can’t get any other way. And today the life skill that everyone has to have is the ability to create their own job. That’s Drownproofing 2.0.”

The Role of Higher Education in Promoting Work Readiness

Undoubtedly, there are many within the higher education community who, even today, would reject the notion that the purpose of a college education is to prepare students for the world of work, much less to train students to become job creators themselves. Yet, for others, the task of fostering students’ work readiness, developing their entrepreneurial capabilities, and guiding them down a pathway to a successful career is the de facto mission of all of our colleges and universities.

For the former group, the growing focus on jobs is inevitably viewed as reductivist, relegating higher education institutions to the same status as factories churning out “product” — skilled labor, in this case. “Just wait,” this constituency might well caution, “this vocational turn will be accompanied by a hail of unintended consequences: a weakened citizenry, the abandonment of the arts, and the valorization of rote learning in place of critical thinking.”

For the latter group, the increased attention to graduates’ employability and work readiness signals a long-overdue shift to a more realistic perspective on the function of higher education within a knowledge economy. “Look,” this group of stakeholders might well argue, “preparing future professionals to master basic problem-solving skills, arrive at work on time, communicate effectively, escalate challenges to managers only when warranted, and possess some familiarity with the tools of the contemporary workplace (whether spreadsheets, algorithms, databases, etc.) just makes good, practical sense.”

Both sides have a point, even if neither side necessarily sees the whole of the matter. But the contemporary moment, characterized as it is by rapidly evolving industries and global economic uncertainty, may require all of us within the higher education community to think in terms of both/and rather than either/or propositions about the purpose of a college education. Certainly, the proponents of employability — who are by no means necessarily antagonistic toward civic virtue, the arts, or critical thinking — appear to be in the ascendency just now, spurred on by an extended economic crisis as well as by the concern that too many recent graduates are unemployed or underemployed. Some institutions, for example, are now going so far as to offer employment guarantees to their graduates, as is the case at Davenport University in Michigan. Indeed, there is accumulating evidence that a perspective committed to fostering employability is taking greater hold both within the higher education community itself and more broadly in the realm of public opinion and even public policy.

In the summer of 2013, for example, President Obama proposed a new federal rating system for colleges and universities that would focus on, among other things, graduates’ earnings. Despite considerable pushback from many within the higher education community, President Obama continued to argue on behalf of the merits of his proposed “scorecard” for colleges and universities in the months that followed, even while acknowledging his critics: “A lot of colleges and universities say, you know, if you start ranking just based on cost and employability, et cetera, you’re missing the essence of higher education.”

But the president also argued that his scorecard is modest in its ambitions and practical in its areas of focus: “So you have just a general sense of what’s the typical graduation rate, what’s the typical debt that you carry once you get out, what is the employment rate for graduates five years afterwards.”

By the summer of 2014, the Obama administration outlined further courses of action, announcing a series of initiatives focused explicitly on job training and employability, allocating $1.4 billion in grants to be made available to institutions that follow a “job-driven checklist” designed to promote employer engagement, apprenticeships and internships, data-driven accountability, regional economic development partnerships, and “a seamless progression from one educational stepping stone to another,” among other actions. It identified three principal benefits it expected to result from its efforts to support industry and educator collaboration: “getting long-term unemployed Americans back to work,” “upskilling American workers through apprenticeships and on-the-job training,” and providing “accelerated training for in-demand information technology jobs across the economy.”

The Need for Skills Acquisition Before Graduation

The effort to promote apprenticeships and other experiences that better prepare individuals for the workforce is laudable, and undoubtedly necessary, as the United States has relatively few apprenticeships compared to other nations. A recent report from the Hamilton Project noted that apprentices “make up only 0.2 percent of the U.S. labor force, far less than in Canada (2.2 percent), Britain (2.7 percent), and Australia and Germany (3.7 percent).”

At the same time as the president promotes his initiatives, governors and other state leaders have hardly been sitting idly by waiting for the federal government to sort out these challenges. Ohio, for example, is investing $12 million on its OhioMeansJobs.com Web site to assist students in better understanding which college majors are likely to lead to jobs in high-growth industries. Numerous other states are also attempting to create greater transparency regarding the employment statistics of graduates who have attended their colleges and universities, in some cases aided by third-party organizations such as CollegeMeasures, which works with states as diverse as Florida, Texas, Virginia, and Arkansas, among others.



Journalists have not been shy about picking up on this theme either, particularly in the business press. Publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and the Financial Times have published numerous stories in recent years about college graduates purportedly lacking the skills employers require. Occasionally these articles highlight the need for closer collaboration among employers and colleges to address the so-called skills gap, whether through apprenticeships or by allowing employers a greater role in designing curriculum or through other means.

Rankings organizations are also bringing greater attention to the matter of work readiness. The QS World University Rankings released in the late summer of 2014 were widely reported by the media as assessing global institutions on their achievements with respect to teaching, research, and employability, with QS placing the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the top of its current ranking.

Think tanks, consultancies, and research firms have weighed in as well. In a report published in early 2014 by the consulting firm FSG, released to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Harvard Business School guru Michael Porter argued that “no longer are companies content to wait at the end of the education pipeline for graduates with the right skills. Instead they are becoming part of the pipeline itself, taking on themselves many of the roles historically reserved for education institutions.” Consider, for example, the case of Northrop Grumman Corp., which recently partnered with the University of Maryland to design a new curriculum in cyber security. Northrop Grumman not only helped fund the development of the curriculum, but it also provided computers as well as funding toward the cost of building a new dorm to house the program’s students.

Nor have higher education leaders failed to take a position on these issues. In early 2014, Nancy Zimpher, the chancellor of the State University of New York system, announced a bold expansion of the SUNY Works program with the stated aim of creating partnerships with all Fortune 500 companies operating throughout the state to support cooperative education initiatives, internships, service learning, community service, and other practical learning experiences. And writing in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary just days after Zimpher’s announcement, Drexel University president John Fry argued that our colleges and universities “won’t be able to create more tangible returns on investment for our graduates unless the rapidly expanding chasm between what higher education institutions produce and what employers want is closed. Access to a college education is no longer enough. The world has changed so significantly that colleges and universities must complement traditional education with real experience, including authentic connections to the workplace.”

Closing the Skills Gap

Clearly, there is much pressure for colleges and universities to do more to prepare their students for the world of work. Georgia Tech’s McLaughlin may be right. Today, the ability to land a job is a critical life skill. And the role of the college or university in fostering this ability among its students is relevant not just to those individual students but to whole economic regions, to nations, and, inevitably, to the world at large. Certainly the global economic crisis of the last half-dozen years has concentrated our collective attention, both here in the United States and around the world, on the need for jobs and the need for strategies to support meaningful economic growth. As McLaughlin’s comments imply, postsecondary institutions have an important role to play in stimulating economic growth, and in no small measure they can accomplish this by developing the capacities within their students to not only achieve strong academic outcomes but to succeed in the world of work and even to thrive as entrepreneurs.

Of course, colleges and universities cannot shoulder that burden alone. If they are to successfully prepare students for the world of work, they must be capable of equipping them to succeed in a particular context, in certain labor markets requiring specific skills. Consequently, understanding the needs of those labor markets requires colleges and universities to be in dialogue with employers on a continuous basis. Fry, from Drexel, understands that the responsibility for cooperation around education and employment is, as a consequence, necessarily a shared one: “Employers must understand that if they feel the business environment has become too competitive for them to provide training and apprenticeship programs, then expectations of graduates’ being work-force-ready are unrealistic. Unless, that is, they commit to work with colleges in creating innovative programs that will help graduates hit the workplace floor running.”

Certainly there remain many within the higher education community who would continue to promote education for education’s sake and reject the perceived vocationalization of learning in service to the changing whims of employers. But, at the same time, a growing number of higher education institutions clearly view framing the choices faced by colleges and universities in this way as a false dichotomy, and these institutions are demonstrating an increasingly urgent readiness to embrace what we might think of as the Drownproofing 2.0 imperative.

In a June 2014 interview, for example, David Angel, president of Clark University, observed, “I think most colleges and universities would say that their students are well educated at the point of graduation. Question is, do they have the skills that are needed to take that education and add value to the organization that they going to join after graduation?” He went on to say, “I think we’ve reached the point where there’s a growing consensus that what we’re looking for, if you like, is liberal education 2.0,” a new type of education combining “the critical thinking, good writing, [and] rigor of analysis in the major” associated with the liberal arts with opportunities to place students in “authentic problem-solving situations” where they can demonstrate “resilience.” Not only is this the right thing to do for students, their parents, and employers, Angel argued, it’s also the right thing to do for the institutions. “Our applications for undergraduate enrollment at Clark are up 70 percent over the last two years.”

Angel is not alone in thinking this way about liberal education. Following a survey it conducted in 2013, the labor market data company Burning Glass concluded that the employability of liberal arts students can be enhanced if they can acquire certain complementary skills in areas related to social media, computer programming, sales, graphic design, data analysis, and more. “Despite the high unemployment rate for liberal arts graduates, we are seeing that the skills they possess are in demand when coupled with specific technical skills,” reported Burning Glass CEO Matthew Sigelman. “Employers report a strong need for recent graduates who possess skills such as writing, adaptability, and problem solving. When combining these skills with workforce-specific competencies, a liberal arts education becomes highly valuable.”


Reprinted with permission from Higher Education and Employability: New Models for Integrating Study and Work by Peter J. Stokes and published by Harvard Education Press, 2015.
















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