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Higher Ed Friend or Foe?

February 20, 2014

Historically, many four-year colleges haven't focused extensively on the transition out of their institutions -- whether that's making sure students have all the skills they need to make it in the work place or helping them find an actual job.

They've got come-as-you-will career centers, sure, and professional programs that prepare students in a narrow context. But in a post-recession era where many graduates (not just those in liberal arts) are still un- or underemployed, despite paying record-high tuition, pressure has mounted on colleges to do more.

A few have taken the opportunity to create on-campus programs, connecting students with local businesses or even setting them up with a temporary post-grad gig. Others have focused on revamping career services, bringing students in from day one to improve their readiness upon graduation.

But those colleges have competition. Increasingly so, private ventures, often called "bridge programs," are springing up to fill the college-to-career transition gap. Some do so completely independent of institutions, even framing themselves as an alternative to traditional higher education. Others form partnerships with colleges and work with their students during academic breaks.

But no matter the format, there's an acknowledgement that colleges have in some respects failed to address this need, and that they're not the only ones trying to change that.

"We think that higher ed is going to have to do more as it goes forward, and we're seeing a lot of people in higher ed who totally get that," said Josh Jarrett, co-founder and chief learning officer of Koru, a new bridge program that mentors students on professional skills and sends them into the work place for a short time.

"I think the question is how much is going to be required, and we think it's a bit of an all-hands-on-deck kind of moment, where we need to give young people a set of options and a set of opportunities," said Jarrett, who until last year was a senior official at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Today, Koru announced its initial 13 partner colleges, mostly liberal arts institutions, which will likely supply most of the program's inaugural students. (Koru participation is not restricted to students from those colleges, but they'll work closely with the campuses to tailor and improve the program.)

About three-quarters of the monthlong program entails professional coaching and skills development (communication, database work, personal branding, etc.). The rest is students working on-site with Koru's partner employers, including West Coast-based REI and Zulily, which will be looking to hire the program's most promising participants.

"We've really recognized that the college can do a whole lot more to open up wide professional realms as options for students that we just haven't been able to do in the past," said Noah Leavitt, assistant dean of student engagement at Whitman College, a Koru partner. "Koru is, I think, just part of the college's response to hearing from students."

Not all such programs are collaborative, though, and the growing enterprise has irked some college officials who see it as a competitive threat. But these ventures have as much to teach higher ed as higher ed has to teach them, said Peter Stokes, vice president of global strategy and business development at Northeastern University. (Stokes also writes the "Peripheral Vision" column for Inside Higher Ed.)

"There's this notion that we've been doing this for a long time.... We must be doing the right thing. But some of these new experiments, as I say, are sort of atomizing the experience," Stokes said. "A lot of this has been building for awhile, and the argument has been framed as economic necessity. And that argument has just been underscored three times since the recession, and now virtually every institution is in the employment game."

It's not just that jobs are more scarce, experts say, it's that employers' professional expectations for new hires have risen dramatically -- at least in part because the companies are doing less training and hand-holding of the people they bring in. (One recent report showed that while liberal arts graduates do start out less successfully employed than most of their peers, in the long term many catch up to or surpass graduates in the professional fields.)

"I think that there is a tension on the surface that having programs like these may make colleges be perceived as not doing their full job. I think that's fair -- that tension does exist," said Andy Chan, vice president for personal and career development at Wake Forest University, who has criticized the traditional model of career services. "But at the same time ... for so many of these liberal arts schools, the professional development skills that these programs offer may not be offered at their particular schools, and I think that's just sort of a reality."

Ventures like Koru, the Fullbridge Program, coding academies, General Assembly, Intern Sushi and Coursolve all take different approaches to bridge work, but they share an advantage over higher education: networks of employers, of mentors, of students.

"There's simply more scale there," Stokes said. "In an on-the-ground context, these kinds of things do happen in career services offices today." Just within much smaller communities.

Where coding academies offer full-time, short-term training in computer programming designed to lead straight to job offers, and Coursolve connects companies with instructors, Fullbridge takes a middle ground, partnering with colleges but pairing students with their own coaches and teams where they learn the skills (including self-promotion) of business and entrepreneurship. It's learn by doing and collaborating, but in simulated work environments. The cost, including housing, ranges from 12 days and $5,000 for an "internship edge" program to a month and $8,000 for a business fundamentals XBA, as they call the credential.

"The ability of the students that we work with to think critically and to solve complex problems and to bring all of their critical thinking skills to bear is unparalleled. But that is not the same as learning how to read a financial statement or learning how to write a memo as opposed to a research paper," said Rya Conrad-Bradshaw, director of college and XBA programs at Fullbridge. "How do you take all of this knowledge that you've built and make yourself competent in the workplace? Colleges and career centers have been innovating a huge amount.... but given their own limited resources, it's simply difficult to provide this kind of training and education to all of their students in a rigorous way that doesn't eat up their entire lives."

Or their budgets. Places like Northland College and St. Lawrence University have footed the bill for pilot bridge programs, but have yet to see if they're sustainable. Some of the private companies have scholarship funds (employers help cover the cost if they find new hires through Koru), and some campuses that partner with them provide aid as well.

But for the student paying his own way, another $5,000 on top of four or five years' worth of tuition is not that much in relative terms, Chan said.

"Because the cost of education continues to rise, the pressure for people who are paying for their education to get value out of it has also risen," he said. "We're all doing the best job we can. We're all trying to innovate quickly. But it's always good to have new concepts coming to the table."

But colleges might do best to keep up, Stokes said.

"For the time being, the universities have the competitive advantage," he said. "But if these new firms start seeking and winning accreditation, that could really, really, really change the landscape."

 

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