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Higher Ed's Future at the Intersection of Learners and Employers

The future of higher education is bridging the gap between the expectations of learners and the needs of employers. 

March 9, 2021

Fewer students started or returned to college last fall -- numbers were down half a million below 2019. In understanding those numbers, we should remember that enrollments have dropped each of the past 10 years. Prospective students have been balancing the prospect of launching a career or at least a full-time salary or putting that aside for college benefits such as greater long-term income, campus social life, maturing and finding the right career. It is, as Michael B. Horn and Bob Moesta suggest, “A Not-so-Tidy Narrative.” Nevertheless, as Horn and Moesta point out, “According to the University of California, Los Angeles’s annual survey of freshmen entering four-year colleges and universities, roughly 85 percent say they are going so they can get a job. That is up from roughly two-thirds in the 1970s, although down slightly from its peak in 2012.”

And it is not just freshmen, as nearly 90 percent of those returning to college are seeking to enhance their career prospects and earning power.

While these numbers are not unanimous, they show the vast majority of students are seeking our services to move ahead in their professional lives. The expectation of nine out of 10 of the students in our classes -- in return for $100,000, more or less, and going into long-term debt -- is to advance and enhance their careers. This is a high-stakes investment for our students.

Employers, on the other side of the college experience, are expecting graduates to be able to hit the road running. “Almost half (43 percent) of employers do not provide on-the-job training. Instead, these employers expect for these graduates to know everything.” Hiring a new employee is also a high-stakes investment in orientation, benefits and socialization of their new staff.

Right in the middle of these two highly invested groups are the colleges and universities. We are adapting to new economic, social and technological environments. In order to meet the desires of our learners and their soon-to-be employers, we need to thoroughly understand the changing environment and constantly adjust our curriculum and learning outcomes to match the needs.

An important driver of change in our society today is the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). This revolution “is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.” And the impact is fueled by technologies such as artificial intelligence that are changing the workforce. No longer are the effects of AI limited to blue-collar jobs, but increasingly the careers of middle managers, accountants and engineers are impacted. Richard and Daniel Susskind, in Harvard Business Review, project the market for physicians and attorneys will be impacted. These impending changes must be included in our calculus as we develop our curricula to best serve both learners and employers.

We are at the critical pivot point for learners to form career aspirations that are realistic and founded in factual projections. We have a responsibility to make certain that learners understand the market projections from the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics and other credible sources so that they can make informed decisions about their future career paths.

At that pivot point between learners and employers, we are well served by bringing the two groups together to build understanding and connections. An effective strategy can be to create a panel of top industry and HR leaders who will not only provide input into our curriculum decisions, but also provide occasional forums in which students can probe the preferred credentials, competencies and qualities that are in high demand in their field.

As institutions, we need to closely track the changing aspirations of our entering students as well as the realities and forecasts of employers. This is not a once-every-year-or-two event. Rather, it is an ongoing process of knowing our students before they arrive while monitoring the industries and enterprises for which we are preparing the students. It is irresponsible to prepare students for jobs of the past -- ones that are fading and disappearing in the rearview mirror of technologies and trends.

Prior to graduation or certificate completion, we also have a responsibility to prepare our learners with tools and networks to track and forecast the future changing environment of their career field. The advent of smart technologies and evolving nature of demand for products and services combine to make for rapid shifts in the need for expertise and specializations. Our graduates must be able to track these changes for the sake of their own employment and advancement security.

Is your college or university making the close connections with both students and employers that will best serve their needs? Are you partners with both groups in building a success and fulfilling future?

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