Published on 2014/09/19

This trailer highlights some of the interesting ideas and innovative insights shared by all three speakers at The EvoLLLution Symposium on Higher Education and the Workforce, hosted at Stanford University. To watch the full video, please click here.

  I’m a non-traditional student. I’ve been in the workforce for more than 20 years and before I transferred to UCLA — where I just completed my bachelor’s degree — I attended community college.

My first day at community college was rather nerve-wracking. Trust me, when you’re 30-something with a backpack and you find someone with a shared experience, you’re like, “Thank God! Let’s talk.” This is how I met Robert.

It turns out Robert served in the Air Force where he managed about 30 people and a budget of $2 million a year. But, even though he was so highly skilled and experienced, he couldn’t get a job. This just didn’t make sense to me. How is someone who has so much work experience not valued in the workforce? As it turns out, this situation is not unusual. Employers require degrees in even the most entry-level positions.

What non-traditional and transfer students really need is for the system itself to change, but students can’t really do that alone. After all, the problem goes much deeper than a lack of degrees; it’s more systemic. This system is built for learning for learning’s sake. It focuses on the idea that university students will end up remaining in academia and contributing to society’s pool of knowledge.

As students, we can certainly be active and demand to learn topics that relate directly to workforce-focused outcomes, but we’re not in a position where we can ask for significant changes to the curricula. We can’t teach teachers how to teach. There’s still this gap between what’s taught in the classroom versus the pragmatic skills that contribute to being successful in today’s economy.

So, what’s the answer? What’s needed to close the gap between higher education and the workforce is a one-two punch where students are pushing from one side and employers from the other.

At base level, employers should start communicating with universities. They need to talk to faculty and provosts and presidents about what they need from graduates. To take it a step further, businesses need to get involved in the program planning process. Wouldn’t it be terrific if employers would work parallel with faculty to develop programs that met teaching aims and accreditor demands while still preparing students for the labor market? This could create an applied liberal arts system, one in which students could actively participate in the learning process and that would serve them outside the classroom.

All students can benefit from work experience in their academic program. Employers would benefit too. This is one area where leaps have definitely been made. We have co-op programs existing already, but I feel like there needs to be more of an alignment between the classroom learning and workplace outcomes.

Maybe we could change the higher education system and have students spend a year of their university or high school time working, apprenticeship-style. They could have more time and opportunity to have more knowledge to apply to the job. In the case of non-traditional students, maybe the programs could focus on technical issues and business ideas that would make them competitive.

I’m certainly not blind to the challenges in the way of some of the concepts I’ve brought up, but the main problem is businesses aren’t communicating with universities and universities are hesitant to communicate with businesses. Universities aren’t really interested in innovation. It’s not for lack of wanting; it’s just because of the systemic habit.

A system overhaul is really what we need. This could be one that turns traditional higher education on its head or, at the very least, create a higher education stream for students who intend to work outside of academia. This is really almost impossible for students to do on their own.

We’re starting to see some collaboration at the institutional level between students and the university. We need business and the academic world to stop working at arm’s length from another and then and only then can students see the outcomes we need to succeed.

This presentation has been edited for length.

Heather Adams was the second of three speakers at The EvoLLLution’s Symposium on Higher Education and the Workforce, hosted by Stanford University. The Symposium featured three snapshot talks by people on very different ends of the higher education-workforce divide (an employer, a student and an administrator), sharing their perspectives on how to close the gap between these two spaces. Over the past month, we published the talks by Maggie Johnson, Director for University Relations at Google and Edward Abeyta | Director of K-16 Programs, UC San Diego.  


    The above trailer provides a small taste of the innovative ideas and insights shared The EvoLLLution Symposium on Higher Education and the Workforce. To watch the full event and hear all three speakers, please click here:
WATCH FULL PRESENTATION

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Readers Comments

Ian Mulder 2014/09/19 at 10:24 am

Great talk on the ‘one-two’ punch that institutions sorely need to remain relevant in today’s market. While Adams says this will likely be delivered by students on one side and employers on the other, I think we’re also starting to see other stakeholders get involved in pushing institutions for much-needed change. Accrediting bodies, boards of trade, governments and even media have shown growing interest in higher ed accountability. While this scrutiny has met with resistance from some higher ed institutions, I think overall it will lead to better outcomes and more transparent operations.

    Heather 2014/09/28 at 2:09 pm

    Mr. Mulder,

    Thank you for your comment! I agree, there are many factions that are pushing/encouraging shifts in higher ed, especially in relation to professional development and preparation.

    It seems awareness is high that major change is necessary. Now it is really about ‘how’ this is done, isn’t it? How do we move the changes along in a time relevant fashion (this is being untangled as we speak, especially in terms of the current administrations efforts to up our grad and degree rates by 2020 —but there still needs to be checks and balances on are we simply raising grad rates to raise them v. what shifts are necessary for long term positive outcomes and results in terms of preparing students for the workforce), how do we do this while simultaneously addressing the concerns of those who may fear what a university/workforce partnership means in the long run, how do we find the funding to implement changes that are actually addressing what needs addressing and set consistent standards so that there is a bar reached across the board, and ultimately who is deciding what these standards are?

    I don’t think it is difficult to agree on some core applied liberal art/professional development standards that every student will need for this as-of-yet-to-be-determined new middle class ‘job’. More and more the pressures for needed change are coming from multiple elements as you mention.

    My determination is that the old school bias towards workforce training is more or less gone (or should be), replaced by a pragmatic and reality based logic that embraces the need for both professional development, skilled labor, and an appreciation for the totality of what it means to have a college education through a more traditional definition. It now lays on our shoulders as educators, workforce leaders, and students to encourage, promote, and fight for these coming shifts.

Neil Parry 2014/09/22 at 9:15 am

I’m not sure I agree completely with Adams’ point that institutions are systemically opposed to innovation. It’s true that institutions tend to be more cautious about adopting new things, especially when compared to big companies that we today consider synonymous with “innovation” (e.g. Google), but that rational, cautious nature isn’t always a negative thing. Whereas major tech companies are creating products that constantly get upgraded and could be obsolete in a matter of years, institutions need to think of where their “product” will take students 20, 30 years down the road. I, for one, want them to methodically consider the impact of their programming and services before making sudden changes, to ensure their mission to serve students is always met.

    Heather 2014/09/28 at 2:58 pm

    Mr. Parry,

    I couldn’t agree more. Methodical and deliberate thought is imperative when considering implementing change in higher ed, as well as the impact that any new shifts have on students, the quality of education imparted, the university system as a whole, what such shifts offer individuals, the work force, and society at large.

    My view is not that universities are ‘systematically opposed to innovation’. It is simply a reality that the traditional system is not set up for swift, efficient change. It is not news that big universities take awhile to implement change. Often this is a good thing, as you point out, change for changes sake is not efficient, effective, or smart. Every university has educators who are interested in how to most effectively serve students. The hope is that educators look everyday at what we can do to better serve our populations, and are constantly weighing the options, the results, and the needs of students and society at any given time.

    The issue to me is the difference between thoughtful consideration of the implications that shifts to higher ed may have v. lack of forward movement toward progressive, pragmatic changes that keep us current in addressing student need and national/global changes.

    Institutional systems are slow to move, and unfortunately professional development changes, tech, communication, global initiatives, etc. have progressed faster than we have been addressing them in most university settings. While research, time, and thoughtfulness are important in implementing change, there does come a time when movement is necessary.

    There is plenty of consideration that goes into shifts in higher ed, I do not see us in danger of irrationally, thoughtlessly, speedily, and naively rushing into change in the university/higher ed system. Plenty of time, research, and thought has been gathered on the subject, most of it clearly pointing to the need for change. I do see a danger in moving too slowly and missing great occasion to open our university systems up to the possibility and opportunity that is presenting itself. Partnerships between universities, the workforces, and a more vocal, initiative taking student body (calling all non-traditional students!) can create the noise, support, and encouragement that it may take to push an old system into innovative change.

    Individuals in the university setting are doing it everyday, it is time for partnership and collaborative effort to impart these innovative shifts in order to reach larger more effective platforms.

Susan 2014/09/22 at 4:48 pm

I’m of the opinion that the way to accomplish more accurate mapping of education to jobs is to require the teachers and administrators to get jobs periodically outside of the higher education field – perhaps term limits on positions? So often, the career path into higher education is research, publish, & teach to the exclusion or minimization of practical experience of any length within any particular industry. Embedding comfortable positions at the teaching or administrative levels within higher education undoes its intent, regardless of the talent, charisma, curiosity, and passion they have. For those educators who arrive at the higher education door with extensive job & industry experience, they bring with them old paradigms, hypotheses, & researched knowledge that has already been bypassed by current needs or advanced practical insights…which speaks directly to your assertion of a culture of high resistance against innovation. In that, I have seen it myself – despite individuals who had striven to overcome it in their universities.

Stefanie Brumaru 2014/12/23 at 11:55 am

I couldn’t agree more! I’m a former non-traditional student (now happily employed), and it really is shocking how little some academic programs can prepare you for the workforce. I got lucky in that I chose a program that I knew would lead me to a job upon graduation, but many of my peers are still looking to start their career almost a year after graduation.

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