Working Higher Ed: Who is 'buying'​ it?

Last updated on: May 31, 2022

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As a founding father of the United States, author, scientist, inventor and more, in the 1700’s Benjamin Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” His words continue to ring true, but there is little else that anyone can buy that depreciates quite so slowly as information. The modern world, however, is very different from the world that Mr. Franklin inhabited. There are challenges in higher education today that he could never have foreseen, and so while it is true that we can still look back on his words for wisdom, we also need to consider the realities of our economy (and what it takes for someone to thrive in it).

There seem to be more and more examples of entrepreneurs “making it on their own” with the rise of a positivity movement and gig economy where people may ask themselves, “What is my degree worth?” Influencers on social media are in full swing, and we are hearing the “follow your passion” messages loud and clear. In generations past, there was no doubt that studying something (anything!) in college would lead to stronger prospects in life. Times are undeniably changing, and the path to opportunity is not so clearly paved as it once was. A 2016 study by Georgetown University found that: On average college-educated people make $1 million more over their lifetimes than do their less-educated peers. Who wouldn’t sign up for that?

It isn’t just college education, either. All education seems to make a difference, as the Association for Talent Development points out: companies that train their employees end up with a 24% higher profit margin than those that don’t. 24%! What else can any company do to drive that sort of profit differential? Education, viewed this way, seems to be a positive both for those who receive and those who offer it. After nearly 20 years working in recruitment around higher education and deeply immersed in pre and post college planning as a professional, the question to me becomes- how do we make it ‘work’ for the learner, the employer and the educator?

For the last decade, 10,000 boomers per day have aged out of the workforce on average. “Aging out” refers to 65, the magic number at which most people think retirement begins (or ought to begin). More and more frequently, however, boomers are not really “aging out” at all. Rather, they remain in the workforce, for a multitude of reasons: their employers ask them to stay because of a shortage of replacements, they lack the savings they need to retire, or they expect to live longer and thus choose to continue working.

The multi-generational environments of today undeniably impact workforce trends and post-secondary needs.

What is impacting these trends just as much if not more so than the expansive generations at work, though, is the changing nature of our economy itself and skills needed to adapt. A half-century ago, someone could take a job in an office or in a factory, learn a set of skills, and expect (somewhat reasonably) that their responsibilities would not change much. Today, the opposite is essentially guaranteed: you learn your skills with the expectation that those skills will become irrelevant sooner or later (usually sooner).

New innovations have also stopped making headlines. In today’s world, we expect skills and systems to phase out in a matter of years rather than in a matter of decades. There is quite a bit of buzz about short-term credentials becoming a solution: certificates and training programs that can correspond to specific skills. There is natural fear too as many traditional liberal arts institution simply cannot accept the ideological difference in the purpose of higher ed. Short-term credentials contrast with college degrees in that their focus is insular, not broad. Some would argue that someone who aspires to get into computer engineering and opts to earn a short-term credential in Python or Java instead of spending four to six years on a college degree could be equally as successful in launching that career.

Is this all a good thing for colleges? How about students?

In terms of efficiency, yes – it is an awesome thing. Short-term credentials end up saving everyone time and money, both employers and talent. Instead of going through (or paying for) longer educational programs that perhaps contain the skills employers need sandwiched with what we can call ‘global knowledge’, the next generation of talent can go through three-month, six-month, or even one-week boot-camps and training programs. These programs teach to today’s world and today’s needs usually by practitioners rather than traditional classroom academics.

For every success story of someone who skipped college, there are also going to be people who regret not earning their degree. Ask a colleague who went back to school as an adult, and you may find what their perspective is: Fair or not, there remains a negative bias toward people who lack a college education. According to The Learning House’s “Closing the Skills Gap Survey” only 33% of employers were always open to considering nontraditional job candidates (those without a 4-year degree). This means that those people who choose to stick to short-term credentials alone instead of a hybrid education strategy that includes both short-term and long-term plans – may end up putting themselves at a disadvantage in the job market.

Is this to say that everyone who enrolls in school is printing themselves a golden ticket in life? Of course not! In fact, the numbers in this area are abstruse at best. Consider these two statistics: of students who enroll in a bachelor’s program, only 60% manage to earn their degree within six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This goes up to 88% for an elite set of highly selective schools (think Princeton, Yale, Harvard), which corresponds roughly to the “best value” schools-where the ROI is highest according to US News and World Reports. But just because they are ranked highest in ROI, are students getting the skills that employers are wanting? Hart Research Associates has something that ought to give all graduates a moment of pause:

81% of employers say graduates lack critical thinking skills.

That means all graduates, from an Ivy or not. There is no shortage of media telling us that as students enter the job market, they are less-than-prepared for the challenges their employers need them to face. This could in part explain why the Strada Institute says that roughly 43% of all college graduates are underemployed. Put simply, they have the degree but not the required skill set. Industry may have seen this shift sooner than education. That is something we should learn from. As leaders began to build physically dispersed teams with the rise of telecommuting, so were teachers learning to cope with virtual classroom dynamics- getting better and better at modeling skills and behaviors that are truly what employers are seeking today and into the future. Yet still, many (if not the majority) medical schools, as an example, fight this evolution by failing to recognize online coursework in their admissions policies.

At the 2018 American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) conference in Washington DC, the point was raised:

As technologies advance, would one prefer to rely on the machine to recognize data variances which help us diagnose disease while the human delivers the message of the prognosis- or the other way around?

As we examine all these facts – gross underemployment, graduation failure rates, the value of various credentials, machines taking over jobs, changing skills of the virtual leader and the lack of critical thinking (or other) skills – we should be cognizant not to put too much blame on anyone, least of all the students. There is so much noise in the world in higher ed today. It confuses both the consumer and the provider.

We’ve sent the message that STEM is the way by funding programs to promote these fields. Accordingly, students are studying STEM at higher rates than they ever have, and with good reason too. According to the Pew Research Center, STEM graduates out-earn non-STEM graduates even if they end up working in a non-STEM field. Jobs in healthcare, technology, and engineering will continue to be in high demand, but whether because of the strenuousness of study or the relevance of information (the jury is still out on this one), majors like Molecular Biology and Mechanical Engineering yield greater economic rewards than English Literature, Theater, and Art History.

There are no hard and fast rules around winning programs for students to pursue or institutions to offer in the educational market, even if making programmatic recommendations for institutions is what I do every day! However, knowing what we know about the velocity of change and what both students and employers want, here are some ways forward for institutions in higher education:

1. Emphasize skills and programs that correspond to real economic opportunities.

It’s immeasurable how many times I hear university faculty suggesting the development of more “abstract thinking”-type programs, but the reality is: everyone benefits when students are learning specific skills. Collaborating more closely with employers, universities should plan their curricula around hiring needs. It sounds obvious but it’s not so easy to reverse engineer education programs in step with the basis on which employers will make their hiring decisions. An employer needs Java? You can bet that the college’s comp-sci students will learn Java in and out when there is someone connecting those dots!

2. Incentivize stronger bonds between the academic world and the private sector.

Instead of working toward their own distinct goals, universities ought to align themselves with the private sector and vice versa. The adult learning market has bubbled over the last couple of decades even with growing access to short-term credentials through accredited college programs. Institutions could and should complement one another and tuition benefits are an immediate link between employer, learner/employee and institutions. Having a “mediator” between the academic world and the private sector to facilitate this partnership so that everyone comes out a winner puts all resources in the right places. Arizona State University and Starbucks are on their way “to the races” with their model for win-win-win!

3. Design learning programs to the students’ needs.

While the lecture hall may be iconic, it is certainly not the most accessible or the most convenient means for students to access their education. Online classrooms have become popular in high school and in short-term credential programs, and many universities have adopted this modality in concept, but struggle to scale effectively to deliver and grow their programs. The Online College Student Survey, presented at CONNECT has found that by tailoring programs more to students’ schedules, universities could create more value for greater numbers of students, and in turn make a stronger impact on employers, talent, and the economy. So, it’s less about just saying ‘go online’ and more about designing both recruitment and programming that is workforce friendly.

4. Pay attention to the numbers.

With as much data as we have access to, why are decisions being based on gut anymore? It’s undeniable that change is hard, and often requires an investment, but universities looking at economic demand, student experience, success rates, unemployment trends, and other data not self-sourced through career services departments but through organizations that work independently will continue to drive ahead in this competitive landscape. Reading into the truths that statistics communicate is simply the only way forward in today’s economy.

5. Encourage state funding.

While this may seem like the most difficult area for change, it may also be the most important. Policy makers can enable universities to rely less on grants and private funding by funneling state funds into their programs, while at the same time encouraging the type of smart, data-driven education that we know will serve the economy better. From creating opportunities to older, minority, and other under-represented students, to making degrees more meaningful, there are many leaps forward that policy makers can initiate by passing the right legislation and restructuring the education system in the right way.

When we produce better-educated people, we build a better society.

Our local, national, and global economies all stand to benefit from a more intelligent approach to education. Working, by and large, in isolation from one another, academia and the workforce rely on each other inextricably, and when we separate them the way that we do under our current education system, we are falling far short of the expectations that Mr. Franklin surely would have for us.

How do we optimize our investment in knowledge to maximize our return? There is no single answer, but we know that communication and collaboration will lead us in the right direction, as they always do, and partnerships have changed the game for many universities and employers.

Flashback to the beginning of the 20th century. The place: a college classroom. Superficially, not much has changed. The strategies, the mindsets, and the goals remain basically the same. There is nothing else in our world that we can say this about. Phones changed. Cars changed. We have little theaters in our homes (TVs) and entire libraries in our pockets (smartphones). Isn’t it time for our education system to catch up to the 21st century – and start serving its inhabitants rather than demanding that its inhabitants serve it?

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