The writing is on the wall for higher education to revamp its curriculum to win the next cohort of students. Many colleges and universities are seeking to do so by inviting collaboration with industry professionals and employers to create programs that deeply reflect the needs of the workforce. However, colleges striving to create career-conscious students are still faltering, and all stakeholders are responsible, according to a whitepaper by WGU Labs, an affiliate of Western Governors University working to improve student outcomes.
The report is the byproduct of a convening between stakeholders in higher education, workforce, philanthropy and policy this past summer. Such participants included Loyola University (La.), Instructure, State Business Executives and the Walton Family Foundation.
Confidence among Americans in the value of their degree began to sour well before the pandemic. According to Pew Research in 2016, 29% of Americans thought a traditional four-year degree did not prepare students for a well-paying job in today’s economy. Years later, their hunch has proven to be largely justified: One in five (21%) graduates said their college didn’t provide them with needed job skills, and half (50%) decided against applying to at least one entry-level job because they felt underqualified, according to Cengage.
But colleges, universities and other postsecondary institutions believe employers should bear some of the brunt of these structural failures. While higher education works to ensure its programs are deeply ingrained with the practical skills necessary for today’s workforce, the sector is also frustrated by employers’ low engagement in helping develop relevant curricula.
“Employers, therefore, expect colleges to do the majority of the work when it comes to skills development—and aren’t willing to collaborate fully to make these programs effective,” reads the report.
To better integrate the two sectors and improve graduates’ grasp of today’s workforce, here are the main problems stakeholders believe need to be solved to move forward.
Skills graduates possess are poorly communicated
Employers recruiting candidates based on their skills rather than their education are five times more likely to find a high-performance employee, according to McKinsey & Company. However, college graduates are having trouble articulating what skills they learned due in part to their education, and hiring managers are not illuminating to applicants what skills they are looking for.
To bridge the delta, the whitepaper suggests colleges and universities start in their backyard. Specifically, they can leverage their local marketplace to observe the needs and skills required in their local marketplace. One of York College of Pennsylvania’s core missions is to push students to do service in the community, thanks to a tight relationship it has built with the city of York and its employers.
While the skill gaps colleges identify in their local community can be interpreted for broader national workforce needs, many students may not be looking too far from home. Nearly three-quarters of students (69%) say they plan on staying within the region they graduated, according to Handshake, an organization that strives to open workforce access to all students.
Another way colleges and employers plan to create more transparent modes of communication in graduate and applicant skillsets is by legitimizing cross-sector digital credentials.
Institutions’ in-house career services are faltering
Institutional resources to support learners on their career pathways are missing the mark. According to a survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), just 26% of students use the career center for help with internships, 21% take part in mock interviews, and 21% visit for networking preparation.
One of the most prominent pipelines between higher education and the marketplace is internships. However, WGU finds that internships favor only small, privileged demographics of students.
Despite the lack of efficacy in today’s internships, several institutions still believe in fostering career preparation services between higher education and employers. Northern Virginia Community College developed the Guaranteed Interviews program alongside participating local employers to create a direct talent pipeline.
Other stakeholders suggested on-the-job training agreements between employers and higher education. In this model, students spend some of their time working at a local business, gaining both academic credits and job experience simultaneously.
Lack of focus on how employers can guide recent graduates
Sending graduates into the workforce is currently a one-way street. While colleges need to prepare students for their careers, employers also need to join the dialogue. Training and development opportunities available at entry-level jobs are usually limited in scope and outdated and lay the brunt of the responsibility on its recent hires, the report found.
One way higher education can help employers develop an environment that fosters growth is by embracing continuing education opportunities. For example, Amazon’s Career Choice program offers employees the chance to create foundational, career-oriented skills essential for a job at Amazon, and they can double as credit toward a college degree for participating in postsecondary institutions.