Improving through Innovation: Evolving the Postsecondary Model to Fit Today’s Students

The EvoLLLution | Improving through Innovation: Evolving the Postsecondary Model to Fit Today’s Students
As technology continues to commoditize the delivery of knowledge, it’s critical that colleges and universities redefine their model to remain competitive and ensure they’re truly meeting the needs of today’s students.

At its core, what is higher education truly about? Producing human capital and talent. It’s about sending students out into the world prepared to be more productive and successful than they were before earning their degrees. To justify society’s investment in higher education, graduates must not only secure gainful employment—they must also bring knowledge and skills that spur organizational growth and expansion in opportunity for others.

In this age of automation, better technology naturally makes us more productive. But to create this technology and to use it to its fullest potential, human knowledge must advance faster than machines.  People talk about how robots replace jobs. If you have the right education, however, automation will always raise your income. You just need to be on the right side of the knowledge divide. This means higher education must direct students to majors and specializations that are valued both by markets and by society’s trajectory of change and innovation. In the end, humans drive machines, and higher education must align itself with this fact. Colleges and universities cannot pretend to prepare graduates in a bubble when the cost of education has risen so dramatically. Producing graduates for jobs that are obsolete or will be made redundant by technology is an unintentional form of educational negligence.

The US unemployment rate fell to an 18-year low at 3.8 percent on June 1. With so few people seeking job opportunities, how do we help employers find workers to fill open positions?

The knowledge and skills we impart to students must be tightly aligned with what organizations need.  Success must be measured not just on the quantity of job placements, but also on the quality of those placements. Student placement rates do not sufficiently measure the human capital performance of colleges and universities. Labor shortage reductions in target industries that drive economic prosperity must be swapped for traditional student placement rates as the metric tracked by schools and career service offices. Ensuring an alignment of curriculum with market needs is much harder than coaching a student to find employment (that is, any job that pays a wage or salary), but this is a new imperative that colleges and institutions must embrace. We need to understand if we are “moving the needle” in terms of labor shortages in our communities and if we are providing what regional labor pools need.

To serve this new mission, higher education must go to the industries that it serves. Traditionally, we make employers come to us. Instead, we must meet them on their turf. At the Kelley School of Business, we recently met with business leaders from the Indianapolis high-tech sector. Because Indianapolis’s tech sector is growing rapidly, our partner companies face acute shortages of talent and knowledge in their quest for growth. We asked these leaders one question: How can we help high-tech firms develop talent and make better business decisions? Their candid responses helped us question old assumptions about how universities deliver courses and engage communities. These recent conversations now feed our own rapid prototyping of new programs where local companies are part of program design.

Amplifying value to industries from higher education means delivering knowledge and skills that are more accessible and actionable. The concept of semesters fits a nineteenth-century understanding of economic calendar cycles linked to agriculture. Traditional on-campus undergraduate and advanced degree programs may require students to exit the job market for varying periods of time. Technology-driven cycles of business and product obsolescence are now rapid. To stay competitive, companies and employees need doses of new knowledge that are more frequent and more easily translate to application. Colleges and universities must better bridge academic programs with tighter and tighter cycles of knowledge refreshment that drive organizational competitiveness. Slowness to do so makes academic degrees less relevant and opens wider acceptance to industry-driven credentials earned outside of higher education. Digitally credentialed badges offered by training organizations not affiliated with accredited universities, for example, have gained wider acceptance from employers in their search for talent that has work-specific skills.

Leaders and faculty members within the Kelley School challenge each other not to be complacent. This motivated our launch of online learning in 1999, when most other universities did not adopt this delivery tool because of a fear of diminished educational value. “You can’t learn online!” they said back then. As exemplified by our conversation with the Indianapolis high tech sector, a sense of urgency informs our current engagement of the regional and national business community. We understand that our relevancy is no longer an entitlement.

In the past, higher education could be complacent. Now, though, technology commoditizes the delivery of knowledge. This creates a level of pressure unlike what higher education has felt previously. Colleges and universities must connect research and programs more closely with what hiring organizations value. Movement in this direction is a win for everyone—students, faculty, and stakeholders that invest in higher education. Reluctance to change will further and further shrink the role that colleges and universities play in the creation of prosperity.

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