Clearer Labor Market Links Critical to Meeting Student Expectations
Meeting student expectations has become increasingly important for today’s higher education leaders, as the marketplace has grown in competitiveness and as students have become more focused on their position as consumers. Chief among the expectations of today’s students—especially non-traditional students—is that their higher education experience will facilitate success in the labor market. In this interview, Peter Stokes discusses the roots of this expectation and shares his thoughts on how institutions can adapt to ensure they’re creating value for students.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are students today so focused on the ROI of their higher education experience?
Peter Stokes (PS): You have an environment with rising tuition and fees, mounting debt, widespread underemployment or unemployment for recent graduates that is increasing demand among many different stakeholders for a more transparent demonstration of higher education’s return on investment.
Among those stakeholders, you see not just students, but also the federal government—which is making billions of dollars available through various paid programs to students who are enrolling in college. You also see institutions themselves looking to demonstrate their ROI work to capture the data that would enable them to make the argument that they’re achieving those positive outcomes. You also see state legislators, governors and even employers looking for some evidence that the educational investment being paid is paying off in some practical ways.
At the end of all this, it’s really about rising tuition costs and uncertain job prospects that push this drive towards return on investment. One of the ways in which schools can differentiate is around this ROI.
Evo: How do non-outcome factors—like customer experience and non-academic participation—play into students’ ROI calculations?
PS: There has been a shift over the last decade or two from treating students as degree candidates to treating them as consumers of degrees, as customers. This consumerism is often characterized as a symptom of a problem, but this shift is due in part to the behavior of colleges and universities. The intensifying competition for the best students amongst selective institutions has created an environment where building a value proposition around the student experience has marketing value. The emphasis residential colleges put on these sorts of amenities and activities when seeking to attract freshmen is pretty remarkable. There’s a tremendous emphasis on extracurricular activities or lifestyle amenities and so forth. This trend leads students to evaluate their college choice decision in part non-academic- and non-outcome-related qualities.
There’s a lot of forces at work here but the importance of student experience and ROI to today’s learners is both a consequence of the competitiveness of institutions and a growing consciousness from students as to just how much higher education costs and what they’re looking to get out of it.
Evo: How do poor customer experiences impact a student’s view on whether attending a given institution was worth their investment and time?
PS: There are many administrators who believe that a poor service orientation can negatively impact retention and degree completion. There’s no question that the expectations of students have risen, and as a consequence, if those expectations aren’t met then students may well look at transferring and taking their education dollars elsewhere.
Evo: How are the business processes of today’s universities hindering them from meeting the ROI expectations of students?
PS: There could be lots of business processes that might need to be examined, particularly if we’re thinking about some of those student service experiences that could potentially dissatisfy students and ultimately drive them to stop out and perhaps go to another institution.
If the real issue is jobs then the real work of colleges is not only to develop students academically but also to foster their work readiness. It’s about creating connectivity to the labor market so students can seamlessly transition from education to employment.
The problem, from a business process perspective, is that very few schools have the infrastructure, capacity or skill sets required to develop relationships with sufficient numbers of employers to create attractive job opportunities for a significant portion of their graduates. That can be especially challenging for rural institutions where there may be fewer internship or job opportunities in the immediate area to connect students with. We’re going to see growing numbers of institutions attempt to build these relationships with employers and that means they’re going to need to invest in the necessary infrastructure, the human capital capacity and the skill sets necessary to pull that off.
At the same time, we’re already seeing efforts from some venture-backed startups to create those kinds of relationships with employers and function as a kind of intermediary, connecting those employers to talented, work-ready graduates. Colleges aren’t just competing with one another to improve their work readiness programs; they’re also competing with commercial providers. That’s going to put some additional pressure on colleges and universities to refine their business processes around these lineages to the employment landscape.
Evo: Are there any other significant changes you’d suggest for institutions hoping to remain relevant in the ROI era?
PS: For selective institutions, if they can show the work readiness benefits of their curriculum and extra-curricular offerings, the experiential learning opportunities, and if they are able to demonstrate with data that their graduates get good jobs, that will go a long way towards helping students rationalize these rising costs with respect to tuition and fees.
For non-selective institutions, the priority has to be on developing and delivering programs that prepare students for the highest growth areas in the workforce, like health sciences, energy or security. Ultimately it’s about being relevant and working closely with the employment community in the region that the institution serves.
Evo: What are the biggest roadblocks to making these process changes?
PS: From an intellectual perspective it can be straightforward to map what you need to do to get students from education into the workforce but there’s always an absence of resources to do more whether the shortage has to do with financial resources or human capital resources and as a consequence, many schools will have to make choices and stop doing certain things to do more in the areas that demonstrate an ROI.
Apart from money and people, the biggest challenge may be cultural, getting diverse stakeholders focused on the same objectives that everyone can rally around and find value in. That’s going to take time as well as committed leadership at all levels across the institution and across the higher education ecosystem itself. It’s really going to have to be collaboration between our colleges and universities and the employment ecosystems within which they’re situated. That collaboration has to be bidirectional. It has to involve the institutions stepping into the world of work to create more experiential learning opportunities and more authentic professional learning opportunities, and it’s equally important for employers to step into the world of higher education to come into the classroom and advise faculty on the development of curriculum to create those problem-based learning experiences.
We can’t continue to believe in this myth of the ivory tower in one far-off land and the real world at some other location. In reality, the real world and the world of academic study are intimately and economically entwined and so we have to embrace that reality and work harder at making the connections between these diverse stakeholders clear.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Business