The back-to-school season is easy to recognize. Temperatures get a bit cooler. Walgreens and CVS start doing a brisk business in pencil and notebook sales. And in college towns like Boston, as I can personally attest, commute times suddenly double.
Another familiar feature of the season, of course, is news columns on education trends -- those lists of the 10 or 12 or 15 things to watch, whether they be emerging technologies, or new regulations, or looming anxieties about increased competition, financial challenges, the future of tenure, and so on.
What’s striking about so many of the observable trends in higher education today is the way in which they seem to be fueled by the same motivating force: the desire for jobs. The pursuit of jobs or job readiness or real-world work experience seems to be the trend of trends.
For some within the higher education community, this focus on jobs will undoubtedly be viewed as reductivist, relegating higher education institutions to the same status as factories churning out “product” – skilled labor, in this case.
“Just wait,” this constituency may well caution, “this vocational turn will be accompanied by a hail of unintended consequences: a weakened citizenry, the abandonment of the arts, and the valorization of rote learning in place of critical thinking.”
For others, the increased attention to graduate employability and work readiness will signal what they might regard as a long-overdue pivot to a more realistic perspective on the function of higher education within a knowledge economy.
“Look,” this group of stakeholders might well argue, “preparing future professionals to communicate effectively, arrive at work on time, take problems to managers only when warranted, and possess some familiarity with the tools of the contemporary work place – whether spreadsheets, algorithms, databases, or other – just makes good, practical sense.”
For the moment, the latter voices appear to be in the ascendency -- spurred on by an extended economic crisis, unparalleled in our lifetimes, where as many as 4 in 10 recent graduates are unemployed or underemployed. Indeed, we can see evidence of this perspective taking hold in decisions related to everything from campus operations to curriculum design to assessment to the development of new education-related consumer services.
Look at big data. Business analytics have an important role to play in demonstrating institutional effectiveness. Increasingly, that effectiveness is measured by student success – not just in the classroom or on the exit exam, but in the workforce. Mid-career salaries represent the kind of long-term outcomes growing numbers of institutions are orienting themselves around, and colleges are adapting their systems to gather this kind of information.
Furthermore, few schools today would willingly position themselves as being at a remove from the wider world of economics, industry and work. To the contrary, in one way or another, colleges are going to where the jobs are – whether through the delivery of online learning and short-residency executive education programs, or through the development of satellite campuses, both domestically and internationally, in key economic hubs.
This represents an important kind of bridge-building between the world of academic study and the world of work, and it can be seen in the way colleges and universities are approaching curriculum design.
Look at big data – again. This past summer, IBM announced deals with five U.S. universities – including Georgetown University, George Washington University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Northwestern University, and the University of Missouri, as well as several foreign institutions – to collaborate in the development of new curriculums around data science.
Last spring, the Georgia Institute of Technology announced a deal with Udacity to deliver a master’s degree in computer science online for less than $7,000 in tuition, supported by a $2 million grant from AT&T. Naturally enough, the telecom firm hopes to hire some of the program’s graduates. Deals like these underscore the extent to which universities represent critical talent pipelines, and undoubtedly many students will benefit from the closer collaboration between these institutions and employers.
Even the debate about the value of the liberal arts is concerned with the relevance of the curriculum to the work place – and this is by no means a bad thing, at least if you are among those who believe that the liberal arts curriculum, and the skills and capacities it develops, does have relevance to the needs of the work place.
But the debate is useful also to the extent that it highlights the limitations of the liberal arts in promoting work readiness – because there are a number of ways in which such a curriculum might be augmented to achieve that end.
This can be seen in the growing focus on experiential learning opportunities – whether it takes the form of internships and co-ops, or field research experiences, or participation in business incubators, or any number of other kinds of outside-the-classroom learning experiences.
Of course, experiential learning programs take time for institutions to develop – especially those that intend to provide students with the opportunity to benefit from paid, professional experience earned in the course of their degree programs – and not every institution has the capacity to quickly develop the relationships with employers necessary to sustain these efforts.
For that reason, a number of commercial enterprises are stepping in to help current students and recent graduates, as well as colleges and universities, by providing these sorts of experiences. Witness coaching organizations like the Fullbridge Program, which delivers an intensive preparatory curriculum to help students increase their work readiness, and online providers like Coursolve, which matches courses with organizations’ current business needs so that students can engage in practical problem solving and produce a real-world work product.
Inasmuch as educators are now placing greater emphasis on the application of curriculum to the work place, it isn’t a surprise to see assessment moving in the same direction. This summer the Council for Aid to Education announced that its Collegiate Learning Assessment exam – a tool for measuring, at the institutional level, the value-add that colleges are able to deliver over the course of an undergraduate degree – would now be augmented by something called the CLA+, a new kind of exit exam that attempts to measure the employability of the individual graduate.
Concurrent with the emergence of this new kind of outcomes assessment is a growing recognition that employability should not just be the concern of recent graduates or incoming seniors.
Indeed, a few weeks back, LinkedIn announced that it would begin allowing individuals as young as 14 to create profiles on its site while also permitting them to draw upon the firm’s new University Pages to aid these future professionals in their college search efforts. The intention, it seems, is not only to help prospective college students compare and contrast institutional profiles, but to empower them to connect with current students, as well as alums – folks who are already on campus or already in the workforce, and who can share their views on the extent to which their alma mater was able to effectively prepare them for the careers they ultimately hope to pursue or are already pursuing.
It will take time to see which of these forms of work force preparation prove effective and which do not – both academically and professionally. Those institutions that are most successful in testing these more professionally focused strategies and tactics are likely to be those that view the journey from college to work as a continuum where they have an important role to play, rather than those who view the encroachment of pre-professional preparation on academic disciplines as an anathema.
Whatever one’s philosophical disposition, the desire to link the worlds of academic study and work more closely together is clearly driving diverse forms of innovation, and those innovations certainly represent interesting trends in and of themselves. But the real trend, ultimately, is the pursuit of jobs itself.
As a consequence, for a growing number of colleges and universities, the emphasis this back-to-school season will have to be on getting their students ready for work, and getting ready to make that work for themselves, as well.
Peter Stokes is vice president of global strategy and business development at Northeastern University, and author of the Peripheral Vision column.
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