Recently, our team attended the NACAC annual conference— a great event for admissions leaders and their industry partners. We were fortunate enough to attend a thought-provoking session led by Jeff Selingo, long-time higher ed researcher and reporter, who recently surveyed dozens of executives for his new book, There is Life After College. Much of what we heard from Selingo resonated with my experiences both working with higher ed leaders and as an employee of a 3,000-person company.
Selingo wanted to know what skills would help graduates land good jobs, so he interviewed and surveyed dozens of C-suite level employers to understand what they were looking for. What he found was that regardless of industry, most executives valued the same five traits: curiosity, creativity, digital awareness, critical thinking and humility.
The problem— there is oftentimes a disconnect between the higher education experience and the modern workplace, meaning many students are not always equipped with the skills to succeed post-graduation. This assertion is underscored by the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus administered by the Council for Aid to Education, which estimates that 40% of college graduates don’t possess the complex reasoning skills required to make good decisions outside of the highly structured environment of the traditional four-year institution.
This disconnect may stem from the different environments. On one hand, you have the highly structured, scheduled environment of most academic programs, and on the other, there is the ambiguous, fluid modern workplace. Students succeed in college through strict adherence to schedules, syllabi and study guides. Employees succeed in the workplace with creativity, adaptability and self-direction.
These “soft” skills Selingo references are necessary to adapt to the constantly shifting responsibilities of most careers, executives believe, and can’t be taught from a text book or during a lecture. They must be gained through the higher education experience— a byproduct of the way students learn, rather than what they are learning.
In my 8 years of experience working with higher education institutions, I have had the opportunity to learn more about this gap first hand through our team’s direct interviews with many employers and program directors. To close the gap between what students learn in the classroom and what employers want in the workplace, I believe institutions must modernize their curriculum and the student experience. There are many ways to get there, but all roads include a hard look at programs and teaching methods. Below I’ve shared three ways we’ve seen institutions make changes that bring college skills closer to career skills.
#1. Provide students with opportunities for experiential learning
In his book, Jeff Selingo says that it’s important for institutions to help students fail – sometimes. The highly structured approach to higher ed learning leaves little opportunity for a disciplined student to experience failure. A less structured setting where students are forced to develop their own methods of critical thinking and decision making will lead to a culture of trial and error. To succeed, students must master the art of learning from failures, adjusting their methods, and trying again.
I believe one of the best ways for students to learn how to do this is by providing them with experiential learning opportunities. Making jobs and internships part of the higher ed equation helps students get comfortable with more personal responsibility, on-the-spot problem solving and contextual application of skills. It also drives home the idea that education should continue, in a self-guided capacity, throughout their entire career.
#2. Evaluate program viability and consider the job market
Program viability is one of the first things our team looks at when working with institutions to grow enrollments and build student success beyond graduation. Through employer surveys, labor statistics around future job demand, and other market indicators, we help institutions align their programs with the job market and promote them to the right audience.
The need for alignment between higher ed programs and the job market is especially apparent within the adult learner population. Those pursuing new careers or career advancement are especially affected by the skills gap, and many find post-graduation that they’re still not considered equipped for the job. Employers admit that many certification and continued education programs are great at imparting a number of hard-skills directly related to a specific field, but not as good at imparting the soft skills necessary for career advancement, like leadership, critical thinking and decision making.
By using data and research to evaluate the needs of learners when building programs, institutions can better position them on a path to success.
#3. Partner with area employers to inform program design
One of the ways we are working with institutions to close the skills gap is by helping them identify and connect with area employers to inform program design and align programs with the job market of the future. A partnership between an institution and a business can be beneficial to both parties. The institution gains valuable insight around the skills necessary to make student success post-graduation, and the employer gains access to a pool of uniquely qualified candidates.
These partnerships often grow to include other institutional benefits, like enrollment growth through tuition discounts or reimbursement, sponsored programs, research and labs, program promotion, and exclusive recruitment opportunities for students.
Many institutions have already begun making great strides and are enjoying the benefits of partnerships like these. We admire the work by Drexel University, Embry-Riddle, ASU, and many others who have embraced opportunities to connect learners to partner organizations. And there is no better way to close the higher ed/workforce skills gap than to position your students at the cutting-edge of their field with the employers they hope to work for.
Careers are changing across all industries at a break-neck pace, and this trend doesn’t show any signs of letting up. One of the best ways to ensure the success of both your students and your programs is keep your finger on the pulse of the ever-shifting job market and provide learners with the skills and experience they will need on day one.