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One of the main goals for today’s non-traditional students is using their higher education experience as a jumping-off point for their career. This, unfortunately, is also one of the areas where colleges and universities have had the most trouble creating value for their students. Degrees are still the main form of postsecondary currency, but employers and the general public question their value. Transcripts are not designed in such a way that employers can understand them and short courses and certificates unfortunately fall into the same category. In this interview, David Schejbal shares his thoughts on what it’s going to take for higher education institutions to overcome this challenge to their value.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for today’s universities to ensure students are graduating with clear labor-market relevant outcomes?
David Schejbal (DS): There is increased call from many sectors for universities to demonstrate value for the money that is either contributed to universities or that is paid in tuition.
One of the things that is critically important for most of our students is employment. For a long time, employers have been telling us that there is a disconnect between what they need and what graduates have. Universities need to pay attention to that conversation. It doesn’t mean that universities should shift the curriculum to simply be workforce-development focused, but the workforce development has to be an important component of the type of education universities provide.
Evo: Anecdotally, what are some of the most common skills employers are looking for in prospective hires?
DS: We continue to hear the same things at the very fundamental level. The first need is for communication skills—the ability to listen well and assimilate and convey information and then communicate that in various ways, whether it’s through writing, through oral communication and presentations, or through other media.
A second thing that we hear is teamwork—the ability to both act as an integral member of a team and to act as team leader often in impromptu situations. Analytics and problem-solving skills are another component.
Recently I met with a group of employers and what they said is they really need people that know how to identify the right questions to ask. They didn’t need people to necessarily have answers to them, but they needed them to figure out what they needed to know.
Evo: These soft skills—especially critical thinking, communication and teamwork—have always been implied skills gained through a liberal arts education. However, the public critique on higher ed’s value centers on the skill gap between employers and graduates. Are these programs less successful at engraining these skills than they were previously?
DS: I don’t think they’re less successful, I think that the demand for greater evidence is just more significant now than it was in the past.
I really put the fault here on higher ed. We say that the general education kinds of skills are exactly the kinds of skills that employers seem to want. What we do exceptionally poorly is to help our students understand how to apply the general education knowledge that they get in real-world settings. We have students take history classes and political science, philosophy and English—all really valuable courses sharing important knowledge—but I’ve never sat through a class where the instructor said, “And here’s how you can apply this in everyday life.” When students do learn to apply this in everyday life, it’s indirectly. They figure that out later on.
The conversation needs to be around helping students apply the knowledge that they have outside of the classroom. In my view that’s everybody’s job; that should be something that higher education does for its students.
Evo: What are the most common challenges university leaders are facing in translating these skills and competencies to employers?
DS: We don’t communicate what we teach to employers in ways that employers can understand. We give students a transcript ,and that has got to be one of the most useless documents that we provide. Most transcripts have a name of a course and a letter grade, but it doesn’t say anything about what the student learned in the course or what the student can do with the knowledge that they’ve gotten from the course.
One thing that we’ve been working on here in the University of Wisconsin is really rethinking what transcripts should look like so that they look more like academic resumes than they do like original transcripts. It doesn’t mean that we will get rid of transcripts, but if we want to signal to employers that students really have certain competencies that are directly applicable to the workplace, then we need to do a much better job about being overtly clear about that.
Evo: The transcript was originally intended to allow other universities to have an understanding of what students had learned as they applied for advanced credentials, with the idea that postsecondary students were riding along an academic conveyer belt, moving from advanced degree to degree. Does the idea of changing the transcript signal a transformation in student demand?
DS: The notion of transforming the transcript speaks, in part, to a change in student demand. One difference between higher education today—compared to 20 or 30 years ago—is that people need to engage in lifelong learning to remain employable and really competitive in the job market.
Lifelong learning used to mean learning after retirement for personal gain or personal growth. Today, however, it means just-in-time learning to get the skills needed to remain highly productive and highly employable, to be able to advance in a career or move from job to job.
What we really need to rethink in higher education is the whole credentialing process. The way we structured our degrees are to serve as blunt instruments for signaling to employers what individuals are able to do. What we really need is a broad set of credentials, including degrees, but also a more standardized set of credentials that are much shorter, much more consumable in shorter periods of time and that are able to provide that kind of just-in-time learning that many folks need throughout their lives. We need transcripts that reflect that, transcripts that help students document in some verifiable way what they’ve demonstrated they can do. Moreover, we need to make sure that employers have the trust in those transcripts so they believe that students can actually do whatever it says they can do.
Evo: What are the biggest challenges that stand in the way of creating this new credentialing system that would respond to student demand and create more value for students coming back across the spectrum of their careers?
The biggest challenge to any change in organization is culture. We have a very defined culture in education and change is not something we like. If we can get past that, then it’s really a technical issue. It’s re-designing our systems that record transcripts or data systems in ways that include much greater granularity and much more information and then having faculty include the information in ways that signal what students can actually do.
Evo: Is there anything you’d’ like to add about the larger approach to credentialing and providing skills, and how institutions can actually go about doing that and why it’s important when it comes to creating value for students?
DS: Institutions need to have a conversation about this issue. They need to be pretty open to self-reflection and to understanding that there are things that they do really well but there are also things that need adjustment to the changing times. Institutions need to be very self-reflective and open and engage in internal dialogues about this kind of issue.
Second, institutions have to talk with employers. We do not communicate well with employers and frankly employers do a lousy job communicating with higher education. It’s a two-way street and we just don’t talk to each other enough. We really need to have those conversations in ways that don’t feel threatening to other side. We don’t want faculty to feel like employers are telling them what to teach and at the same time we don’t want employers feeling like faculty are telling them that students need to know a range of things that don’t line up with workplace-relevant skills. There needs to be a really substantive, constructive conversation about what Americans should know, not only to be well-employed but to be good, productive, capable citizens of this country.
This interview has been edited for length.
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Author Perspective: Administrator