Three Steps Institutions Must Take to Ensure Market RelevancyCailin Ahern | Business Development Lead, Coursolve
Higher education is being tasked with workforce development at an unprecedented scale. It has been projected that 40 million jobs will go unfilled by the year 2020 unless institutions are able to double the pace of postsecondary degree attainment in the next five years. This leaves educational institutions in the difficult position of having to educate more students while also ensuring that their curriculum is relevant to the rapidly evolving needs of employers today.
Institutions have worked tirelessly to respond to workforce demands by revising admissions policies and providing flexible delivery options to accommodate millions of working adults looking to further their education and careers. These efforts have resulted in a 1.5% increase in degree attainment over the last four years, but students and employers are hungry for skills they can put to work right away., This is especially evident in high-growth fields such as technology and design, where institutions face competition from educational providers that promise job-ready skills training in less than 10 weeks.
Higher education remains in a fortunate position: employers still find traditional credentials from an accredited institution to be the most valuable way to assess a student’s ability to perform in the workplace and develop the soft skills that will carry them throughout their careers. Yet to ensure their market relevance for years to come, institutions will need to demonstrate both the long and short-term ROI of their programs. Here are three ways they can do this:
1. Engage employers in experiential learning opportunities:
Internships and apprenticeships have long been the method for transitioning students from college to career, and for good reason. Students who participated in experiential learning while in school were twice as likely to be engaged in their careers. Accordingly, employers want to partner with universities to provide more hands-on learning opportunities.
Historically, internships programs have been difficult to scale, but evolutions in technology have made these experiences much easier to come by. For example, The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business partnered with my company (Coursolve) to connect students enrolled in its “Foundations of Business Strategies” course with alumni and employers that have real business strategy needs. Coursolve provides an online collaboration space where students can solve problems posted by alumni and employers, applying skills obtained from their course work in the process. Employers can provide critical feedback, job recommendations, LinkedIn endorsements, and even offer direct employment after the completion of a project. In a global economy where work is often done remotely, this “digital internship” model has the added benefit of providing students with the experience of collaborating from a distance. The platform is gaining traction, and is already being used in University of Washington’s “Introduction to Data Science” and MIT Sloan’s “Entrepreneurship 101” courses as a way to engage and connect students, alumni, faculty, and employers in experiential learning.
2. Modularize curriculum:
Traditional institutions have a significant opportunity to provide formal credentials while still providing recognition for skills gained along the way. Bachelor’s degrees take, on average, more than 4 years to complete. Universities need to give students and employers ways to derive immediate value as learners pursue formal degree completion.
Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire University are examples of institutions that have rethought the way credentials are delivered, providing stackable, competency-based models. While these efforts are noteworthy, institutions can start small by thinking about modularizing the curriculum of individual courses into specific skill areas. This lets students experiment with course content in an on-demand model, letting them focus on areas of greater importance to them. By moving in this direction, institutions get a more accurate picture of what lessons students and employers find most valuable, and can later focus their curriculum accordingly.
3. Track alumni outcomes:
Any savvy student making an investment in their education thinks about return, yet educational institutions rarely provide quantitative or qualitative insights into the career paths of their alumni. Data regulations are partly to blame (student, alumni, and employment data can live in different places and are heavily and rightfully guarded by FERPA and other student privacy laws), but if a large state bureaucracy the size of the University of Texas System can build a data dashboard measuring student outcomes, so can anyone. Institutions can start by investigating the efforts of online platforms like LinkedIn, whose University Pages are designed to profile the career paths of alumni to “help students at every critical milestone from campus to fulfilling, successful careers.”
Another way to track outcomes is to invest in online alumni engagement activities that allow former students to stay involved with their program of study. Simple and low cost efforts, such as providing alumni with ongoing access to course content, asking them to engage current students in digital internships, and getting their feedback on proposed curriculum changes will provide institutions with numerous benefits in return, including strengthening alumni networks and helping to ensure curriculum relevancy. Most importantly, these efforts will provide current students with clearer pathways to success.
While institutions of higher education have made great strides in increasing access to education, much more can be done to ensure its relevancy in today’s job market. By seeking out strategic partnerships with corporations and alumni, re-thinking how curriculum is packaged and delivered, and tracking alumni outcomes, higher education will continue to demonstrate its worth.
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 Richard Dobbs, Anu Madgavkar et al, “The world at work: Jobs, pay and skills for 3.5 billion people,” McKinsey & Company, June 2012. Accessed at http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/employment_and_growth/the_world_at_work
 Lumina Foundation. A Stronger Nation through Higher Education. Accessed at http://strongernation.luminafoundation.org/report/
 “2012 Talent Shortage Survey,” Manpower Group. Accessed at http://www.manpowergroup.us/campaigns/talent-shortage-2012/
 Hart Research Associates. It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College
 Brandon Busteed, “Higher Education’s Six Sigma,” Gallup, May 30, 2014. Accessed at http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/170576/higher-education-six-sigma.aspx
 Hart Research Associates, 2013
 Matt Charles, “U.Va. Darden School and Coursolve Partner to Provide Digital Internships,” University of Virginia-Darden School of Business Press Release, January 7, 2015. Accessed at http://www.darden.virginia.edu/web/Media/Darden-News-Articles/2014/UVa-Darden-School-and-Coursolve-Partner-to-Provide-Digital-Internships/
 “seekUT,” University of Texas System. Accessed at http://www.utsystem.edu/seekut/homepage.htm
 Christina Allen, “Introducing LinkedIn University Pages,” LinkedIn Official Blog, August 19, 2013. Accessed at http://blog.linkedin.com/2013/08/19/introducing-linkedin-university-pages/
Author Perspective: Business