'Higher Education and Employability'

A new book argues that colleges of all kinds need to help their students better prepare for the world of work. A Q&A with the book's author, Peter Stokes.

October 14, 2015

The political and public policy landscape is increasingly dotted (one might say littered) with those who view the purpose of higher education as about preparing people for the workplace, from governors questioning whether their state universities are producing too many graduates in anthropology or other liberal arts disciplines to Education Department officials whose college data tool focuses heavily on economic outcomes.

Peter J. Stokes is not one of those people. Yes, his CV includes a business development job at Northeastern University and stints at the business-focused research firm Eduventures and at Huron Consulting Group, where he is now a managing director. But Stokes earned an English literature Ph.D. and taught at three universities early in his career, and he is a believer in, and a fan of, liberal education.

His new book, Higher Education and Employability: New Models for Integrating Study and Work (Harvard Education Press), argues that colleges and universities of all types need to take seriously their role in preparing graduates for a life of work -- not exclusively, not above all else, but as an essential part of what they do. It's not, as he says in the book, a matter of "either/or" between academic study and work preparation, but "both/and." And the book is designed to be a guide about what institutions might do differently to embrace that role more successfully.

Stokes answered questions about the book via email.

Q. The book's title has the potential to set off those in higher education who believe that placing too much emphasis on how well colleges prepare their graduates for the workplace adopts an overly vocational view of higher education. (This cry was heard most recently upon the release of the Obama administration's new College Scorecard, and its embrace of economic-related outcomes.) What's your pitch to get them to pick up the book -- why do they need to care about the employability of their graduates and how they work with employers to help their graduates fare better?

A. I do acknowledge in the early pages of the book that some audiences may reject my premise outright -- namely, that colleges and universities can and should do more to equip their graduates with the knowledge and skills required to transition successfully from education to employment. As you say, some may well argue that attention to these issues reduces higher learning to mere vocational training -- which is a pretty serious charge.

Of course, my analysis of the opportunities and challenges related to promoting work readiness focuses on top 50 research universities such as Georgia Tech, Northeastern University and New York University, and my aim is to advocate for a particular mode of education that has already been woven into the fabric of some of our best institutions -- one that couples academic rigor with professional preparation in sensible ways.

So the charge that focusing on these issues necessarily reduces higher learning to vocational training just doesn’t stand up, at least in relation to the universities I examine. Ultimately, the cases featured in the book are intended to serve as models that other institutions can localize and adapt to the context of their own efforts to assist their graduates in building successful careers. I’m not trying to change minds so much as provide encouragement and supply models to those higher education leaders who are already motivated to ask more of their own institutions in this area.

And I’m far less interested in pitching the book, as you phrased it, than I am in helping to disseminate some good ideas about how colleges and universities can do better by their stakeholders -- students, parents, faculty, alumni, employers and local government leaders among them -- by putting some of these models to work.

Q. You turn to a professor's 75-year-old tactic to help explain institutions' obligations for preparing their graduates. Can you explain Drownproofing 2.0?

A. In 1940, a gentleman named Fred Lanoue created a course at Georgia Tech called Drownproofing. Fred was a Navy vet and had learned firsthand the importance of equipping soldiers with critical survival skills. In the class, students would have their hands and feet bound and they would be thrown into a pool. Their task was to learn how to float for sustained periods of time to enable them to survive in the water.

Students called the course Drowning 101, and many feared taking it, but it was also a source of pride at the institution, and a signal of the resolve of its graduates. The course was actually a graduate requirement at Georgia Tech until the late 1980s.

The important thing is that Drownproofing is not just university lore. It remains something that the people at Georgia Tech view as being integral to the kind of education they provide. As Steve McLaughlin, Georgia Tech’s chair of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, put it to me, the Drownproofing course taught students how to survive under pressure.

Today, of course, students need to be able to face numerous kinds of pressures. According to McLaughlin, the survival skill students need most today is the ability to create their own jobs. He calls that Drownproofing 2.0, and that’s part of the Georgia Tech mission -- to prepare students to survive and thrive in the contemporary economy, despite all the pressures new graduates face. It’s an arresting image, and it gets people’s attention -- but it speaks to the seriousness and the practicality of the work schools are doing to promote work readiness among their students.

Q. A lot of college administrations and faculty members complain that the goal posts have been moved on them, and that they're increasingly being expected to do some of the workplace training that employers have historically done. Is that a fair critique -- and if so, is it likely to change, or is it just a new reality they have to deal with? Another way to ask it: Have colleges gotten worse at preparing their graduates for a life of work, or are we judging them differently (or more accurately)?

A. I think the goal posts have moved, and no, I don’t think colleges have gotten worse. The expectations are being raised, however -- in no small measure because the cost of acquiring a degree has increased significantly in recent decades, and stakeholders of all stripes are looking for a return on their investments in higher education that feels rational. As one university administrator put it to me, 10 years ago nobody was thinking about this stuff; students just paid their bills and they left.

Now, of course, a great many people are thinking about it -- not least parents. Any many college and university leaders recognize that if they don’t rise to meet this challenge, then parents and students may make their education investments elsewhere.

Once upon a time (perhaps when I was a newly minted graduate), colleges might have done little more than put a parachute on the back of their students, stuffed them into a cannon, handed them a compass and a knife, shot them out into the labor force and wished them good luck, leaving students to figure out the rest for themselves. I think it’s fair to say that today very few people believe that’s sufficient.

Wendy Purcell, the president of Plymouth University in the U.K., wrote a great piece in Inside Higher Ed a few years ago -- she said that the task of colleges and universities today is to produce a graduate that has the whole package, which she termed “graduate plus,” a set of capabilities that include “job-specific skills” and “prized graduate attributes.”

If you listen to the presidents and chancellors at institutions and systems as diverse as Drexel University, Clark University and the State University of New York, they’re all saying the same thing. This message isn’t coming from outside higher education -- it’s coming from its leaders.

Q. Can colleges do more to promote their graduates' employability without displacing, and ultimately diminishing, the other (more "academic") stuff they do? Must it be embedded in the curriculum (where many faculty members are suspicious of corporate interests), or can it be layered on in co- or extracurricular ways?

A. This is an important question, because we are not only asking more of our institutions, we’re also asking more of students. In addition to all of the for-credit graduation requirements, we are increasingly asking them to take on noncredit, co-curricular requirements as well. And that’s where I hope the cases highlighted in the book can be instructive because, to do this well, we need to integrate study and work -- not just pile them one atop the other and ask students to do more and more. Integrating these activities in thoughtful and mutually reinforcing ways will still ask more of students, but it will also alleviate some of the stress that can result from less thoughtful and poorly integrated efforts. Lots of schools have internship programs.

But do they provide courses that prepare students for succeeding in a professional context? Do they ask students to reflect on the linkages between their classroom studies and their work experience? Do they encourage students to bring those professional experiences back into the classroom in ways that enrich their studies and those of their classmates going forward? If these activities are disconnected from one another, they lose a substantial amount of their power. But when integrated -- as we see in the co-op programs at Georgia Tech and Northeastern or in the Professional Edge program at NYU, for example -- they achieve something that is both academically rigorous and professionally relevant, something students feel proud of and from which they derive great confidence.

Q. Your case studies focus on three universities (Georgia Institute of Technology, New York University and Northeastern University) that, in your analysis, have gotten out front of their peers in exploring innovative ways to integrate what they do with the needs of the employers that may hire their graduates. What differentiates those institutions from others, and do they have advantages over the many smaller, teaching-focused liberal arts and regional comprehensive colleges and universities?

A. We should remember that co-op as an educational experience is well over 100 years old. In many respects, these are not new tools. But their relevance and timeliness have grown as the economic context has changed. We live, we’re told, in a free-agent economy where employees need to look after themselves -- their careers, their benefits, their personal brands and so on. At the same time, organizations (whether corporations, government agencies or nonprofits) have evolved, too. The old model of management that left decision making to the manager class has largely disappeared. Today, organizations of all types need front-line staff to problem solve, serve customers effectively and make decisions in real time. That’s changed employers’ expectations about the capabilities entry-level and midlevel staff ought to possess. So experiences like co-op have become more relevant.

Obviously, institutions that have been at this game for a long time have an advantage. But they don’t have a monopoly on experiential learning. NYU is a sprawling institution. It has many professional schools, but it is also at its heart a liberal arts institution. I don’t think the NYU of 2015 views the liberal arts and career preparation as being at odds, and as the cases in the book show, NYU is a great innovator at integrating study and work in productive ways. I don’t think Clark University views these things as being at odds, either. You can take a look at a small Catholic college in the Northeast like Merrimack College and see the same thing -- a thoughtful integration of professionally focused programs with a liberal arts foundation. The reality is, no institution can avoid this challenge. If they do, they will put themselves at great risk. What’s equally true is that every institution can establish and strengthen these capabilities, with enough time, resources and commitment. It’s very much a matter of both/and rather than either/or.

Q. What's at stake for traditional colleges and universities if they don't focus on better integrating study and work for their students? Do they risk opening themselves up to more competition from Silicon Valley-backed alternatives and others that are more workplace focused?

A. I do devote some time to this question in the book, and there are certainly risks associated with standing still. Not only do those institutions that are slow to embrace the employability imperative risk ceding ground to competing colleges and universities, they also risk fierce competition from a burgeoning field of alternative providers, like the rapidly proliferating code academies, as one example. Some of these Silicon Valley-backed alternatives could supplant colleges that are asleep at the switch. In numerous cases, they offer short programs running perhaps a dozen weeks that cost $10,000 or $20,000 and which lead to six-figure jobs within months. Growing numbers of learners are certainly weighing the value offered by these new providers against the value offered by the more familiar colleges and universities.

At the same time, schools don’t need to look at these start-ups as the enemy. In many cases, these new, venture-backed companies may make great partners. At minimum, they can present other models for achieving impact in the realm of work readiness -- and the smart institutions will keep a close eye on these companies’ efforts and incorporate the best capabilities they bring to market into their own portfolios.

Ultimately, the big transition taking place today, I believe, involves colleges and universities recognizing that they have a new role to play in the talent-development sphere -- and to play it successfully, they need to interoperate with the other players in the regional economies they serve, including employers and service providers whose capabilities complement or strengthen their own. That will be an important aspect of successfully integrating study and work: recognizing the critical role that colleges and universities play as engines of economic growth as well as personal enrichment, and ensuring that their work is thoughtfully connected with what comes before college and what comes after.


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