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Adult education has long been a key service provided by American universities in response to the nation’s need for literacy and basic skills training as well as workforce development. While many flexible, innovative programs are being established for technical and skills-based careers, needs in workforce development have changed dramatically. Employees at the high-tech defense and manufacturing companies that keep the American economy at the cutting edge need new knowledge-based learning on technologies that did not exist when they received their undergraduate or even their graduate degrees. America’s largest employers are looking to build flexible new partnerships around these needs, but the nation’s higher education system has failed to keep up. It is time for a systemic reappraisal of how America’s universities can play a role in lifelong workforce learning for the 21st century.

Before retiring from the University of Texas at Arlington in spring 2021, I collaborated with large regional employers to build meaningful, lasting partnerships with the university. Over and over, technology and defense companies spoke of the need for easily accessible degree and certificate programs that would allow their employees the opportunity to deepen their knowledge in their career field of choice. While faculty members and chairs would often push back that skills training was not a role for a University of Texas campus, these companies were not looking for skills training, but greater opportunities for building knowledge of the kind delivered in core undergraduate and graduate programs. Most importantly, they were seeking flexibility in learning programs, whether it be single courses in electrical engineering, for example, to catch up on developments in electrification and battery technologies, or adaptable certificates and full degrees that respond to employer and employee needs rather than solely follow prescribed programs and preapproved degree plans.

Several demographic and technology trends make worker needs for new knowledge a more urgent priority. Fewer traditional-aged students are enrolling in college, a development exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The rate at which technology has widened the divide between knowledge workers and everyone else is increasing, further hardening existing economic and racial disparities, while the numbers of quality jobs available for “everyone else” is in long-term decline. Finally, the drive to “reshore” manufacturing and shorten supply chains will require significant growth in the knowledge workforce at a time when America is simply not producing enough engineers and scientists.

Where higher education fails America is in its inability to recognize, or perhaps failure to address, the fact that in a knowledge-based economy, there are workforce and employee needs that only America’s knowledge providers—our universities—can provide, and that state universities in particular have an ethical responsibility that they are failing to meet. That failure is both morally questionable and socioeconomically damaging to the nation and its people.

Furthermore, by failing to recognize that many in today’s workforce need knowledge-based certificates and degrees, higher education is ignoring an opportunity to address racial, ethnic and social disparities that have trapped many underserved Americans—inner-city African Americans and Latinos, rural white people, single mothers, veterans, and more—in career tracks below where their actual talent might take them. Employees who received an associate degree in electrical engineering technology (EET), for example, face significant challenges in transferring those credits into a four-year engineering B.S. degree without starting over, despite their career experience. Innovative pathway initiatives that support EET student transfers to EE degree programs need to be developed that replicate the undergraduate transfer pathways that institutions like Georgia Institute of Technology have implemented for colleges and universities that don’t have engineering programs.

The cost of tuition and ensuing debt loads also place an added moral imperative on our state universities. They are the only institutions with an appropriate price point for master’s degrees in low-paying fields, and they already have links to the employers most in need of such talent, whether they are government agencies, social service organizations or manufacturers and high-tech firms. Regional public university campuses must take the lead in providing the vast majority of knowledge-based education, online or face-to-face, for these workers, especially if public flagships, focused on national rankings, are unwilling to engage.

State universities, lastly, must ask themselves why they are lagging in adapting to meet the nation’s changed workforce needs. Is it merely lingering prejudice against supplying career-focused training? If so, these universities have refused to recognize the fact that technological change and socioeconomic stagnation in today’s economy impose new responsibilities on higher education in America. Today’s employers understand the vast gulf between simple career training and the knowledge-based degrees that support career advancement. The academy needs to catch up.

There are three immediate steps that can move universities and corporate partners forward:

  1. Regional universities need to work with their local and national corporate supporters to set a plan for what is needed. The range of company knowledge needs, the percentage of employees who would seek face-to-face versus online options, the broader availability of courses in undergraduate years three and four for associate degree holders, the tailoring of individual courses or certificates to address knowledge gaps in critical or emerging technologies, and the creation of certificates or programs in the humanities supporting critical thinking, writing skills and leadership all would fit into this discussion. In larger markets with multiple employers, partnerships across industry sectors whose workforces have similar challenges would help universities find a sustainable path to build this part of their student bodies. If the local corporate community will not fund such an exercise, community foundations or regional economic development groups should step in.
  2. A sustained national effort is needed to overcome the racial and socioeconomic divides that have arisen from higher education’s relentless focus on the 18- to 24-year-old student. The launch of the Power of Systems movement by the National Association of Systems Heads in December is a good start, but the proposal lacks details on any but the most broad-brush goals. While that effort ramps up, corporations and public universities across the country can work together now to target those degrees most needed in that region and changing needs within industry. At the same time, students whose life experience or mediocre educational attainment led them to skills-based degrees must be given opportunities to advance. In some cases, this will require systemic change. For example, the engineering accrediting agency, ABET, should aggressively reach out to industry and universities in support of ways that EET associate degree holders can pursue engineering degrees with minimum life disruption. Such a process could unlock a massive new pool of homegrown engineering talent at a time when engineers are in desperately short supply.
  3. Higher education and the corporate world need to engage with undergraduate and graduate students and their future employers about the meaning and opportunity implicit in the overused phrase “lifelong learning.” Students and recent graduates need to be aggressive in interviewing potential employers on their programs to support ongoing education across their careers, and what education tracks—engineering, engineering management or business administration—would lead to what career tracks. Employers need to more aggressively work with university partners to map their future talent needs. Companies might be leery of exposing too much of their long-term corporate strategy in doing so, but since academic disciplines align only tangentially with business units, such exposure could easily be managed by hiring a business school or systems engineering researcher as consultant to manage the information exchange. Universities need to aggressively shift their focus from alumni as donors to alumni as potential students, corporate insiders—and, yes, donors. The money will come, but for today’s students, engagement with their college or university in the future will require a meaningful ongoing relationship; continuing career engagement is an important way to carry out that goal.

Most importantly, everything described here can be proactively implemented by the nation’s public universities in the very near term. These steps do not require waiting for the universities of the future to emerge or undertaking vast academic overhauls that experience tells us would inevitably become multiyear exercises in navel-gazing. America’s state universities provide quality education at a far lower cost than private institutions, while collaboration with key corporate partners allows them to focus their efforts on programs with the greatest regional impact. The content of today’s university coursework and programs is precisely what is needed by the workforce; what needs to change are the modes of delivery. The academy needs to recognize that its primary customer base has shifted, from being mostly the 18- to 24-year-old undergraduate on a four- to six-year track to a broad, hard-to-define mix that includes those students but adds in early- and midcareer professionals, adult associate degree holders, veterans, mothers returning to their education, and more. Higher education, which cries out for diversity of opportunity inside and outside the university, must step up to make this happen.

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