Whether you want to learn how to host a dinner party, change a tire, or balance a budget, there’s an “adulting” class for you.
Courses that teach basic life skills are popping up across the country, offered by both private organizations and traditional educational institutions.
Previously it was assumed that students would informally pick up life skills during their formal education. Today, however, many higher learning institutions are attempting to put more intentionality and structure into those lessons, while private institutions are becoming available to help fill in knowledge gaps for others.
“Some of the most popular [courses] are financial; so budgeting, credit, taxes, those sorts of finance things,” says Rachel Flehinger, the principal of Adulting School. “Then there’s some soft skills like conflict resolution, how to have a fight productively, how to keep healthy boundaries; and then nutrition stuff, like basic nutrition and basic cooking.”
Adulting School was founded in 2016 in Portland, Maine, by therapist Rachel Weinstein, who often treated young adults who felt overwhelmed and unprepared for some of life’s everyday challenges. According to Flehinger, many of the skills taught by the school were once easier to acquire, while others had never really been provided in a formalized way before.
“Home Ec is no longer provided in schools, or shop, so we do basic car repair and how to change a tire,” she says. “Then there are just practical things that have changed over time, that a school has never provided, like doing taxes or understanding credit card APRs.”
Expanding the scope of higher education
It’s not just private, independent schools that are providing these skills. Undergraduate students at Boston University, for example, are required to complete a certain number of courses offered by the BU Hub, which include areas such as quantitative reasoning; diversity, civic engagement, and global citizenship; communication; and an “intellectual toolkit,” which includes an optional curriculum on “life skills.”
“‘Life skills’ is a big roomy term that can mean a lot of different things,” explains BU Hub associate director Eric Jarvis. “It overlays with soft skills, it can refer to self-care, it can refer to preparation for your career, it can mean a lot of things.”
Optional courses available for students through the BU Hub’s life skills offerings range from résumé writing, to coping with stress and anxiety, to balancing a budget, to basic health and nutrition. According to Jarvis, the Hub is part of the university’s recognition that the expectation of higher learning has evolved, and that educational institutions could do more to prepare their students, both academically and professionally.
“Students can be prepared academically to come to college, but that doesn’t mean they’re prepared socially or emotionally or psychologically or in other ways,” he says. “As concerns have gone up across universities about students and their well-being and their mental health, the universities have recognized that they need to do a lot more for students in this area to support them.”
At the same time, Jarvis says that as the cost of higher education continues to skyrocket and as admissions become more competitive there are heightened expectations about what students get out of their educational experiences.
“Thinking about education more holistically, it’s not just your academic program but your preparation for life as a professional, as a citizen, and as a person,” says Jarvis. “We’re very focused on academics, but we’re increasingly focused on how to prepare students to be successful at BU and in the future.”
Informal learning with intentionality
While these skills have always been important, there has been a heightened awareness of how social, emotional, and even basic life skills can make a significant impact on a student’s ability to thrive at school and beyond.
“In the last two decades a massive evidence base has accumulated, testifying to the importance of skills that go beyond those traditionally measured and taught in schools,” explains Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the cofounder and CEO of Character Lab and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. “Yes, math is important, and so is writing, and so is factual knowledge, but what about kindness, generosity, gratitude, curiosity, creativity, humility, risk, self-control—and the list goes on.”
Duckworth explains that before this new body of research it was widely believed that being a successful adult depended on a strong educational foundation in traditional school subjects. Today, however, she says there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that these softer life skills are equally or more important to the development of successful adults.
“There’s nothing new about the idea that high schools and colleges are places where young people are developing a lot of important life skills,” she says. “What might be new is the intentionality behind it; it’s not just accidental, it’s not just something you hope happens, there’s a deliberateness that might be new.”
Though not every institution offers life skills education, those that do are already receiving positive feedback from students. Duckworth, for example, recently started teaching a new course at the University of Pennsylvania titled “Grit Lab: Fostering Passion and Performance,” and the reaction from students has been generally positive. After each class they’re asked to rate the course on a scale from zero (useless) to 10 (extremely valuable), and according to Duckworth the ratings are consistently above an 8.
“When I think back to my own college education there was never a course about what are you going to do after you graduate? And who are you? And how do you figure out what makes you tick? And how do you network to find a mentor?” she says. “These skills, which I think are so important, we learned, but we learned in accidental and inefficient ways.”
In other words, new educational programs—ranging from the BU Hub to the Grit Lab to the Adulting School and beyond—are putting some structure and intentionality behind those invaluable life lessons we otherwise could only hope came about naturally.