Re-imagining Higher Education Through a Career-Readiness Lens
David Byrne, lead singer of my favorite band, Talking Heads, croons in the song “Burning Down the House,” “Hold tight. Wait ’til the party’s over. Hold tight. We’re in for nasty weather. There has got to be a way. Burning down the house.” As I think about the ongoing misalignment between postsecondary education, learners and employers (i.e., the nasty weather)—where learners and employers continue to indicate their dissatisfaction with higher education—we have arrived at a point where colleges and universities need to step-up with career readiness. No longer can institutions resist or neglect their role in prepping students for work. To do it well, we will require a complete overhaul (i.e., burning down the house) of what we think a postsecondary education is all about.
As I have written previously, the majority of today’s learners pursue post-secondary education to get a job, make more money or get training for a specific career (Stolzenberg et al., 2019). While not the only reasons, career-related motives dwarf all others. Despite these clear signals, there is a lingering disconnect between what learners and employers want and what higher education provides. While students and employers expect colleges and universities to be the gatekeepers of workforce talent, higher education has yet to truly prioritize career readiness meaningfully (Hansen, 2021).
Despite increasing competition, industry leaders still believe colleges and universities can be the source of pre-professional skilling (Puckett et al., 2020). However, there are signs that learners and employers are willing to leave higher education behind as necessary, as seen in the recent partnerships between Google and Coursera as well as Target and Guild Education. Moreover, many small colleges and universities closing, we should be reminded that a “barbarians at the gate” approach to college and work will not serve us well and may only precipitate the pace of such closures if students’ and employers’ expectations regarding work readiness are not met.
Start with the Data
As is the case with most complex challenges, no one solution will suffice. To address these challenges, institutions will need to take a comprehensive and integrated approach, zooming in and out to look at the overall institutional landscape, state, regional, and national labor and occupational trends, as well as market saturation. This rebuild must include a career-focused overhaul of admissions, student affairs, curriculum, academic calendar, revenue driven by student credit hours and everything in between. No stone should be left unturned. And, for those within an institution who argue that career preparation isn’t part of your institutional efforts, kindly tell them to get on board or sit down. From their inception, colleges and universities have been in the business of vocational preparation. Simply read your history.
To begin this career-focused overhaul, institutional leaders should have a clear understanding of state, regional and national labor market demands. They must intimately and accurately know the needs of employers and the expanding or flattening trajectory of occupational fields—not only existing but future demand as well. State and national labor data, as well as labor aggregators like EMS-Burning Glass can provide essential baseline data. Consistent meetings and collaboration with employers and industry associations should also be routine and should include administrative leadership, including all academic officers.
Similarly, a review of student program demand is also essential, as we know learners vote with their feet. To assess trends in demand for particular programs, institutions can review conferral data, award levels, program lengths and course delivery format. Together, this information will provide leaders with a clearer vision of curricular and co-curricular offerings, telling them what to add, delete or alter.
Degrees no longer enjoy primacy as the proxy for the skills needed to do a job. As Hansen (2021) notes, since the onset of COVID 19, entry-level jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree plummeted by 45%, suggesting employers are increasingly valuing skills and experience over academia. Thus, once institutions have a clear understanding of the labor and program demand, they need to map curricula for in-demand work skills.
More specifically, institutions need a clear understanding of how well they are preparing their learners for the world of work via curricular and co-curricular efforts. This does mean that institutions must create an endless and ever-changing stream of majors and programs, but that at a minimum, skills desired by employers are explicitly present and articulated in curricular and co-curricular outcomes.
Generally speaking, the current skills gap can be distilled into two primary categories: the digital skills gap and the relational skills gap.
As Craig (2019) notes, 66% of the jobs created over the last decade require high or moderate digital skills. To this point, Amazon launched its Upskilling 2025 campaign with the intent of reskilling one-third of its current employee pool (Braun & Latham, 2020). You would be mistaken to think this need for digital fluency is restricted to the business and technology sectors. As Braun and Latham (2020) point out, energy, manufacturing, tourism, education, health care and food services are all experiencing rapid transformations due to innovations in machine learning and artificial intelligence. Thus, colleges and universities that neglect to provide all of their students with some degree of digital skilling stand to contribute to the glut of digitally unprepared workers.
Students are the first to acknowledge it, and in a survey conducted by Internships.com and General Assembly, 52% of student respondents said digital and technical skills should be a requisite part of their education (2014). At the University of Montana, we are attempting to fill this void by offering several industry-recognized credentials in partnership with Kaplan. Our goal is for every student to graduate with a major, at least one internship experience and a credential in fields like cybersecurity and data management—what Busteed (2020) calls a triple-threat graduate.
Due to less exposure or opportunity for paid work, Gen Z has increased gaps in so-called soft skills than previous generations. Among employers, written and oral communication, teamwork, decision making, critical thinking and knowledge application to real-world settings are the most valued, non-technical skills (Hart Research Associates, 2015). However, only 14% of employers think today’s college students are prepared with these skills (Hart Research Associates, 2015).
As the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has long professed, competencies like work ethic, problem solving, communication and teamwork continue to be in-demand across all economic sectors. As NACE’s survey of employers affirms, candidates who can demonstrate their readiness with respect to such soft skills enjoy an advantage over their less-ready peers in landing an initial job post-graduation. Moreover, once employed, they will also advance in the organization quicker than those lacking that level of competency.
While the liberal arts by nature provide a portion of this training, Braun and Latham (2020) state that such relational and cognitive fluencies are increasingly essential in the workplaces of tomorrow and, as asserted here, will need to be clearly articulated outcomes of postsecondary education. That way, students have a working vocabulary of these skills to share with potential employers.
Immersion and Delivery
Once an institution has a working picture of labor and program demands, as well as the skills employers expect from learners entering the workforce, determining when and how to deliver that learning to broader cross-sections of learners will be the next task.
Infusion of Career Preparation
As noted, many college enrollees share that landing a job remains their primary purpose for pursuing postsecondary education. Yet, few employers believe recent college graduates are well prepared to apply their learning to the workplace (Hart Research Associates, 2015). Learners echo this sentiment, with a mere 19% reporting that their education provided them with the skills needed to perform in their first job post-graduation (Hansen, 2021).
Equipped with this information, postsecondary education institutions must double and triple down on providing students with early career readiness experiences such as career interest assessments, career coaching, internship and job shadow experiences, apprenticeships, applied capstone projects, and again, courses with career skills and competencies as outcomes. Not only should these experiences seep into the DNA of every learner’s experience, they should be present from their first days as students. I would argue that career readiness starts before students even matriculate. Given the cost and commitment of postsecondary education, learners have the right to know the career outcomes of potential majors and transparency in post-graduate placement when shopping for a college or university to attend. Institutions should therefore require each academic program to publicly share their career outcomes data on department websites to allow learners to make more informed decisions about their course of study. In addition, admissions can use aggregate career outcomes data in their recruitment efforts.
On- and Off-Ramps
Not all learners can commit to a two- or four-year course of study, and their career goals or industry needs, may not necessarily demand a degree. In addition, our nation has a college completion crisis on its hands, with 36 million people only having some college education and no degree and largely saddled with significant debt (Shapiro et al., 2019). Coupled with a steeply declining 18- to 24-year-old college-going population, institutions need to think beyond traditional degree programs and embrace microcredentialing (i.e., certifications, certificates and licensure). Rather than punish students, who for whatever cannot commit to a two- or four-year degree program, “Credentialing seals learning into qualifications that are recognizable, transferable, and usable to gain and sustain employment and continue education” (Credential as You Go, 2021). Additionally, as Braun and Latham (2020) point out, the future of work will require constant learning and re-skilling, as technology continues to disrupt work processes. In this model, smaller credential programs can be created to directly align with industry needs (e.g., bootcamps, mini-degrees or single courses) while traditional degree programs may be broken down into modular, stackable chunks that provide learning and skills right-on-time and may lead to a two- or four-year degree. Such a move would not only provide this 36 million-some population with an acknowledgement and sealed quantifier of learning, it also stands to open up an endless market of corporate partner learners who can dip in and out of programs based on their needs.
Admittedly, a complete institutional reboot seems fantastical. However, it is possible to create substantial change, beginning with an acknowledgement of what students and employers truly demand, adherence to data and a significant amount of political will. There are several factors working against such an overhaul, not the least of which are federal financial aid guidelines, accreditation, institutional funding models and collective bargaining. Despites these challenges, there are still various measures—several noted here—that institutions can take to re-imagine their educational enterprise through a career readiness lens, and in doing so be able to truly meet current and potential learner needs. As with any endeavor, my advice is to start with a small group of projects that can later serve as proof of concept, finding partners and champions along the way and incentivizing innovation where possible. Even if we cannot burn down the house entirely, we need to create small fires where possible and renovate room by room, if necessary. If not, I am afraid the slow, agonizing march to irrelevance will continue.
Braun, M. & Latham, Scott. (2020). The future of work. Montana Business Quarterly. Retrieved from https://www.montanabusinessquarterly.com/the-future-of-work/
Craig, R. (2019). America’s skills gap: Why it’s real, and why it matters (PDF). Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED600483.pdf
Hansen, H. (2021). The U.S. educations sytem isn’t giving students what employers need. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2021/05/the-u-s-education-system-isnt-giving-students-what-employers-need
Hart Research Associates (2015). Falling short? College and career success (PDF). Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2015employerstudentsurvey.pdf
Puckett, J., Pagano, E., Henry, T., Krause, T., Hilal, P., Trainito, A. & Frost, A. (2020). Call for a new era of higher-ed employer collaboration. Retrieved from https://www.bcg.com/publications/2020/new-era-higher-ed-employer-collaboration
Shapiro, D., Ryu, M., Huie, F., & Liu, Q. (October 2019), Some College, No Degree, A 2019 Snapshot for the Nation and 50 States, Signature Report No. 17, Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center
Stolzenberg, E. B., Aragon, M. C., Romo, E., Couch, V., McLennan, D., Eagan, M. K., & Kang, N. (2020). The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2019. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.
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