Are we ready for “a complete rethink of the purpose and value of a college degree”? According to Nick Morrison in his recent Forbes discussion of a survey by the IBM Institute for Business Value and the Economist Intelligence Unit, we need to be, for higher education is “failing to meet the needs of both students and employers, and only a fundamental transformation can put it on the right track.”
That’s the same message Education Secretary Arne Duncan relayed in a recent speech at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “But unfortunately, for millions of other students, our higher education system just isn’t delivering what they need, and deserve. As a nation, we can change that—and we must,” Duncan said.
IBM’s survey canvassed nearly 1,000 leaders from private and public colleges and universities, vocational programs, community colleges, education service providers, and corporations around the world. And their answers put hard numbers to the general feeling that employers are ready for workers, but students aren’t ready for work.
Only 49% thought that higher education was meeting students’ needs, and 43% said that it prepared students for the workforce in particular. Fewer still—41%—said that higher education met industry’s needs.
While job training is not the purpose of higher education, it is indeed one of them. When it comes to ranking the ways of measuring higher education’s effectiveness, the IBM puts job placement at the top. So do educators themselves. Students, also, say that their No. 1 reason for attending college is to be able to get a better job. As Duncan pointed out: “America’s students know what they want out of college. They want an education that will set them on a path to success. They want control of their future, without decades of overwhelming debt. They want a college degree that will help them thrive independently, support a family, shape the world, and contribute to their communities.”
So if we all agree that higher education needs to help prepare students for the workforce, what should we do?
IBM’s study identified three key strategies to whipping higher education into shape: 1) create more practical and applied curricula; 2) use new technology to improve access, experience, variety, and outcomes; 3) build and expand strong relationships with employers and other partners within comprehensive educational ecosystems.
“When the cost of higher education is rising all the time,” Morrison argues, “students deserve to take a course that will be relevant to the rest of their lives, and that means higher education has to be more aligned with the work.”
We agree—but at the same time, is it merely a question of students lacking training and skills? Not quite. Another common factor influencing the lack of preparedness among students entering the workforce is that they are graduating with degrees they don’t want for jobs they don’t like. The issue starts way before a student steps into a college or university. And so we would add step 4: Assist young people in determining the occupations they actually want to pursue.
EMSI helps on all fronts.
1) Create more practical and applied curricula. EMSI’s Gap Analysis Report and Analyst help colleges and universities determine which programs they should offer based on labor market demand. The Gap Analysis Report also specifically helps institutions calculate which programs are over-saturating the market with graduates possessing the same skills.
2) Use new technology to improve access, experience, variety, and outcomes. EMSI’s Career Coach shows students the connection between a college or university’s program offerings and real-world jobs—exactly the results that inspire students to attend college in the first place. When they can explore the wages, growth, and regional demand for a particular occupation, they are more likely to pursue ideal careers, stay motivated in their studies, and gain the skills they need to be valuable workers.
3) Build and expand strong relationships with employers and other partners within comprehensive educational ecosystems. EMSI’s Economic Impact Study measures an institution’s impact on the local economy, providing powerful numbers that can be used to generate support and raise awareness in the community. Also, College Analyst provides graduation data that shows businesses where to find the skills they need, thus strengthening/facilitating the cooperation between higher education and the world of work.
4) Help young people determine the occupations they actually want to pursue. Find Your Calling, a new initiative from EMSI to be released later this year, provides a free, national website where high school students (or parents, or anyone looking to enter or re-enter the job market) can take a simple but effective personality assessment that reveals the types of work particularly suited to each person. Visitors can then explore occupation options right there on the site—even get in touch with relevant schools straightaway.
If higher education is broken, then EMSI is pleased to work towards reparation with these four steps—for the sake of students, businesses, and the economy as a whole.