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The economic fallout of COVID-19 has now caused the largest unemployment crisis since the Great Depression. More than 44 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the beginning of March, and the country’s unemployment rate surpasses 13.3 percent.

In response, higher education is being called to step up and respond to the unprecedented and urgent needs that extend well beyond making good on their promises and obligations to displaced students and faculty. They are being asked to help get Americans back to work. That challenge brings to the fore the already-fraught relationship between higher education and employers, which already harbored doubts about the ability of colleges to produce graduates with the skills to thrive in a rapidly changing economy.

JPMorgan Chase grabbed headlines after ending its decades-long practice of on-campus recruiting. Apple, Google and Netflix announced they were loosening degree requirements. Before the crisis, 90 percent of freshmen said they primarily go to college to get a job, but just one-third of graduating seniors between 2002 and 2016 secured a job offer. Less than a quarter of employers believe graduates are prepared to start a career after college, and only one-quarter of working Americans who attended college strongly believe their education is relevant to their work.

The good news is that long before most of us ever uttered the words “social distancing,” colleges were already retooling curricula to meet the emergent demands of an increasingly dynamic world of work. Faced with rising costs and the tightest labor market in 50 years, institutions -- and even accreditors -- were charting new pathways to economic mobility. They were collaborating (in some cases for the first time), even sharing courses to pair excess capacity with unmet demand. The last decade was, to be sure, a period of innovation in higher education.

Notwithstanding well-founded questions about the readiness of institutions to navigate the crisis, that decade of experimentation means that higher education is well equipped to not only weather the current crisis but emerge stronger. But it also means that the responses and actions leaders take in the coming months may define the relevance and impact of the sector for the coming generation.

Of course, we know precious little about what the post-COVID-19 economy looks like, but as college leaders redesign and reimagine their programs and prepare students, they may find inspiration in and forge tighter relationships from an expected place: corporations.

Because during the last decade, as the shelf life of skills shrank and technology transformed nearly every facet of the labor market, employers were busy pioneering education innovations of their own. They have been early adopters of VR to boost soft skills and of microcredentials to signal achievement. They are experimenting with accelerated approaches to up- and reskill workers and they are designing short-form courses to integrate learning into the “flow of work.” In many cases, the content in these programs is being created not by universities, but by corporations themselves. Rather than approximate, their courses emulate the discrete skills and competencies required on the job.

In July 2019, Amazon announced it was spending $700 million on training for 100,000 of its employees, much of it offered in-house through its Amazon Technical Academy, Machine Learning University and other education and apprenticeship programs created by the company.

College leaders would be wise to note that employers are not looking to absorb higher education’s responsibilities. Gone are the days when mega-corporations like GE built leafy-green corporate campuses that even looked like the typical four-year college. Instead, CEOs are increasingly calling for greater collaboration between companies and colleges, and they’re finding more willing partners among college and university leadership.

That’s why hybrid models that borrow from industry and academic expertise are increasingly common. In 2019, Google created and subsidized an online IT support certificate program that is now offered at 100 community colleges. In 2017, Google also partnered with Howard University to provide students attending historically black colleges access to software engineering training at the company’s headquarters. Hilton Worldwide offers a 22-week apprenticeship program, and Penske provides its employees with both online and hands-on technician training.

City College of New York has partnered with Facebook to build a cybersecurity graduate program. Last year, several institutions in the Washington, D.C., area -- including Georgetown University and the University of Maryland, College Park -- formed an alliance with Capital One and JPMorgan Chase to develop career-ready technology talent for the region.

But college-employer interoperability is about much more than just industry partnerships. Some institutions have begun building the kinds of programs many companies offer to their busy workers -- short-term, flexible and focused on developing specific in-demand technical skills. Major universities like the University of Minnesota, Vanderbilt University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison have now launched coding boot camps that range from 24 to 26 weeks in length.

Students at Castleton University in western Vermont now have the opportunity to study resort and hospitality management in an apprenticeship-style program while living and working at a ski resort. In 2017, the University of Pittsburgh's Katz School of Business launched a course marketplace that mirrors the popular “self-serve” platforms major employers have honed for years to meet the needs of working adults.

Pre-COVID-19, employer-inspired programs were already well on their way to gaining broader acceptance. Still, these industry partnerships have not always come easily or naturally to higher education, in part because the underlying requirements represent significant cultural and organizational shifts that are harder to accept -- and deliver on -- in practice.

Employers have long been stalwarts of investing in -- and hiring from -- the ranks of traditional higher education, but they have been more cautious about venturing further upstream into the complexity of curriculum, instruction and programs. Many faculty members understandably view a narrow focus on career training and preparation as incongruent with their teaching interests -- or even the purpose of an undergraduate education.

But the stunning events of the last two months have injected immediate urgency for institutions to address the imperative of employability -- now, not in some distant future. It has brought sweeping changes to the world of higher education, compounding existing challenges posed by expanded competition, changing demographics and financial sustainability.

We don’t yet know when circumstances will permit us to return to a “new normal” of on-campus study and all the familiar trappings of traditional higher education. Nor is there a bottom in sight yet for the current economic crisis. As higher education comes to grips with uncertainty, postsecondary leaders are realizing that borrowing from -- and aligning with -- the world of work offers a path to long-term sustainability. It also enhances the ability of colleges to deliver on what they are uniquely suited to do -- through instruction, inquiry, robust student services and the creation of rich and rigorous new curricula.

Before, these institutions represented only a relatively small cohort that recognized the importance -- and potential -- of providing flexible learning pathways that can help their students acquire the skills they need to find a good job in a turbulent economy. That cohort will only grow as higher education and employers begin to navigate a landscape that has been dramatically altered by COVID-19 -- and as more colleges and universities realize they have much to learn from the world of work.

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