Higher Ed Has the Toolset, But Do They Have the Mindset to Future-fit?

Published by Joana Jebsen
on Aug 12, 2021

Imagine a fresh-faced eighteen year old, naive to the great big world ahead, hoping for an acceptance into an accredited two or four year college. They’re navigating the long hall towards their college counselor’s office, reviewing the list of schools in their mind, while envisioning a future of friends, inspiring courses and eventually a career, a life. College, whether community or four year, will be their first steps towards adulthood, towards maturity, or so they think. 

What they don’t know, what they aren’t told, is that most higher education is unequipped to prepare them for life. The real responsibilities they’ll meet when they exit campus are not delineated, explored or taught in school. 

To make matters more complicated, the notion of the “traditional student” no longer exists. Students are opting out of four year residential colleges for two year schools and online programs. They’re also delaying the start of college in pursuit of a career. Additionally, there’s been an enormous uptick in adult learners, with families, who start school later, or attend school in tandem with a job. It’s clear: there’s a broken talent pipeline. And an enormous question: is higher education fit for the future?

Teaching and Labeling Soft Skills for the Workplace

We’ll start with the obvious reality: higher education is built upon antiquated systems. Systems that prioritize learning for learning’s sake over skillset building for the real world. Reports by the National Center for Education Statistics claim that over 80% of employers want to hire employees with the soft skills liberal arts degrees offer. These soft skills are wide ranging and reflect capabilities such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaborating, adaptability, micro and macro thinking. 

And yet Higher Ed is missing the mark. Administrators and faculty are not signaling and labeling the soft skills students acquire from a liberal arts degree. How can a student know that deliberating tasks for a team project or amalgamating research for a paper is a soft skill they’ll use in the future? How can they know, acutely, that preparing an excel spreadsheet, taking a UX design class or creating a keynote are hard skills they will need in the working world? They can know if they are told. 

Let’s pitch a radical concept: faculty as career co-pilots. Higher Ed should get faculty on board to teach students how to be workforce ready. They should train and empower faculty to surface and signal the soft and hard skills they are teaching. And as true co-navigators, faculty should bring in industry experts and applications wherever possible to help emphasize the connection between curriculum and career. 

If Higher Education Can’t Prepare Learners for the Workforce, Here’s Who Will…

Higher Ed has been slow to offer flexible and affordable career pathways to adult learners: from free courses, mini-courses, modularized degrees, and standalone certificates, to bootcamps and more. What if colleges swapped majors and minors for learning as a holistic and skillset acquiring endeavor? The Strada Education Network published a startling statistic, “Over 60% of Americans say they would now prefer to pursue non-degree options.” With Higher Ed lagging, students are shifting their focus to alternative credentialing providers. 

These providers are rapidly filling the gap, offering credentials that prepare students for careers. Platforms such as Coursera, 2U/EdX, Udemy, Degreed, Udacity, to name a few, are educational networks for young adults to opt into if they desire to opt out of traditional higher education. It’s not just ed tech upleveling the learning to career marketplace. Corporations are moving away from requiring degrees and towards credentialing for employment. Some companies offering credentials are Facebook, Pluralsight, Google via Google Career Certificates, (Quantic MBA), IBM, Salesforce and Microsoft. A handful of the corporations offering credentialing are no longer requiring that their prospective employees have college degrees. 

Career Navigation To The Rescue

What if students began college by assessing the skills they have, benchmarking these against their career interests, and using this information to design an appropriate learning path? While career services could provide that resource, workforce development and career navigation platforms that help students see their academic experience through the lens of work relevant skills, are proliferating. Institutions could provide easy access to these platforms. Platforms make credentialing seamless by allowing students to embed skills data directly into the credential itself. For example, institutions using Badgr can tag a credential with associated skills from Emsi Burning Glass’s open skills database

Colleges and universities need to reimagine Higher Ed as an ecosystem that merges employers, academia and learners. These entities should work hand in hand, so that students can find their place in the workforce while earning a degree. A critical part of this is providing students multiple touchpoints with employers throughout their academic journey.  From lower-stakes industry panels, mentorships and resume reviews to higher-stakes internships, apprenticeships and actual jobs, students need a team of experts by their sides. For Higher Ed to thrive, education and workforce sectors will need to sync their needs and stakeholders, so that students can earn degrees that enable them to thrive in their adult lives. 

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