5 tech leaders say higher ed must do better to meet employer demands

Embracing shorter-term credentials and leaning on partners are crucial to sustained success at colleges and universities.
By: | May 18, 2022
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“71% of the CEOs of the largest companies in the world said that the skills gap is the No. 1 threat to their businesses this year. That is above the pandemic. It’s above supply chain issues. It’s above inflation.”
—Jeff Tarr, Skillshot CEO, referencing a survey done by Deloitte and Fortune at Arizona State University’s ASU-GSV Summit.

Higher education’s struggle to develop a well-prepared workforce to meet market needs is real. Millions of jobs across an array of fields remain available, further punctuated by the Great Resignation. Though students have called for more short-term credential options at lower costs, colleges and universities are moving too slowly to keep pace with demands.

Michael Hansen, chief executive at provider Cengage, talked about why it’s been so difficult for higher ed to evolve. “The reason that we haven’t [solved the skills gap] is the system is actually working really well. It’s really working well for the people in the system,” he said. “It just doesn’t work for the students. It doesn’t increasingly happen to work for employers. Now employers are actually putting pressure on the system, and that is uncomfortable. Companies like all of ours have a role to play to disrupt the system  and to hold the mirror up.”

Hansen and Tarr were two of a panel of leaders at the Summit—along with 2U’s Anant Agarwal, Coursera’s Jeff Maggioncalda and Ascend Learning’s Gregory Sebasky—looking more deeply at what colleges and universities need to do to overcome the skills gap.

Agarwal, the Chief Education Officer at 2U, an MIT professor and founder of the EdX learning platform, said the building blocks for success lie in course length and delivery. That is, the shorter the better because the traditional notion that higher ed would deliver for most Americans is failing. More than half of all individuals in the U.S. don’t even have an associate’s degree, let alone a bachelor’s degree (two-thirds).

“How do we address all of these people that don’t have access to college?” Agarwal said. “The solution is actually very simple. It’s credentials for smaller pieces of learning. Lego blocks of learning. Professional certificates, micro-Bachelor’s, or micro-Masters. We need to move into a new world of a broader range of offerings like boot camps and professional certificates and other credentials, and not just degrees.”

Maggioncalda said colleges and universities struggling to create those pathways can lean on providers to help them. “They don’t have to make all the changes themselves, create all the content themselves [and] don’t have to find all the jobs themselves,” he said. “There are people out there that can help universities through this period of change.”

That sea change is hitting higher ed like a tidal wave, Sebasky said, and colleges must defer more to the entities that are driving and demanding the shifts. “How do you create a set of services that allow all those people [Gen Z and ages 25-34] to be successful at a rapid pace?” he said. “Let the employers define what the mastery is, and then they’ll help the universities and colleges build the programs to achieve that mastery.”

Employers, he said, are looking for far more than degrees. They are looking to “find people who are honest, good learners, work hard, work well with other people and keeping up with a very high rate of change. The needs of business will be changing. Agility is the name of the game.”

Finding value in the short-term

Although fear still exists over the quality and value of short-term courses and credentials, the panelists said it’s time to let that go. Agarwal, a 30-year veteran in classrooms at MIT, said, “We measure quality by inputs, what percentage of people we exclude. ‘MIT, oh my God, it’s amazing.’ We exclude 95% of the people. That’s why it’s high-quality. But you need to look at outcomes. In some of the boot camps offered by 2U, for people that do not know coding, the completion rate is 90%. When’s the last time you heard similar quality numbers coming out of a university?”

Hansen agreed, saying the “highfalutin discussions” about outcomes must stop because it isn’t working. “Our research suggests that 50% of students graduating high school never considered an alternative other than getting a degree. The ones that are attempting it, 40% of them are failing,” he said. “From an employer’s perspective, a good outcome is we’ve we trained a tech online, that tech is ready to work and stays for longer than three months. A good outcome for a student is that I have an income that allows me to get to the middle class. Let’s track these simple things: How long are they staying? How much are they making? And is the employer happy with them? We don’t need stacks of research. We have a crisis.”

That’s not to say all learning should head in the short-term direction. Maggioncalda said institutions and even businesses “fall into this dichotomy. Is it online or on campus? Is it a degree or a micro-credential? Is it a university or is it industry? Is it remote work or office work? How about neither? Everything’s going hybrid.”

One thing is clear, and that is higher education should embrace the idea that short-term credentials are trending up, along with lifelong learning. Maggioncalda said learners will have a portfolio of credentials that might be split between universities and industry. Sebasky said people are going to have “four or five different careers over the lifetime,” so the idea of a strict liberal education may not fit into employer needs anyway.

In order to get to that perfect place, where colleges are delivering what companies need from them, and vice-versa, Hansen said conversations between the factions must increase. Higher ed must be OK with letting some control go and working together with businesses and providers on a set of outcomes. “Let’s make it not so complicated,” he said “Let’s not have committees and debates and whatever, for hours, weeks and years, the big pile of research. Remove the stigma from … anything else but a degree. We have to change the narrative around that because the outcomes are not bad.”

If they can get to that sweet spot, the benefits for students will be greatly enhanced, Maggioncalda said. “It’s going to change the world for much better. People are going to have opportunities like they’ve never seen before.”