College Leaders Improving the Link Between Education and Employment

Many students and their families are starting to wonder about the value of going to college at every expense only to come back home afterwards and settle into a mundane job that high schoolers could do. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa examined that growing problem in their latest book, Aspiring Adults Adrift.

Colleges that can point to successes in preparing students for careers and helping them land jobs that actually call for higher education therefore have a big advantage over those that can’t. As a result, the last decade has seen a surge in college programs intended to integrate study and work. 

Here is an intriguing example. In 2013, the University of Maryland teamed up with aerospace giant Northrop Grumman to create an undergraduate program in the important field of cybersecurity in the Clark School of Engineering. (Press release here.) Students will go through an intensive curriculum and undertake real-world projects, and interact with Northrop Grumman personnel. 

I think it’s a safe bet that no student who completes that program will end up serving coffee or delivering pizza.

Higher Education and Employability by Peter Stokes is to my knowledge the first book to focus on the trend of collaboration between college and business—colleges crafting their programs after finding out what knowledge and skills employers want.

The book is both revelatory and thought provoking. Moreover, it evidently has the approval of the higher education establishment, given that the foreword was written by Louis Soares of the American Council on Education. Apparently, it is respectable to say that colleges can improve by incorporating business ideas.

Stokes, managing director at the Huron Consulting Group, formerly worked as vice president for global strategy and business development at Northeastern University. (Northeastern is one of three schools he focuses on in detail, the other two being Georgia Tech and NYU.) He argues that colleges and universities should “turn to employability” to strengthen themselves and become more attuned to the economic climate. 

Those that don’t, he writes, “will not only face more competition for students from college and university peers, but they will also risk being supplanted by an array of entrepreneurial ventures seeking to connect students with marketable skills and career opportunities.”

Most of the book is devoted to Stokes’s three case studies, but he begins with a chapter on the great variety of non-college ventures that are also trying to gain by improving the link between education and employment. Those ventures are worth looking at because, as he says, if colleges don’t do better, they will lose students who will bypass them and get both education and job placement from these competitors.

Who are they? 

One large group consists of the coding academies. The U.S. has huge demand for people who can write computer code and numerous firms have entered that training field. For fees that are a small fraction of the cost of earning a traditional college degree, students get an immersion in coding and a near guarantee of lucrative employment. 

While some education traditionalists will grumble, “it’s just occupational training,” that is precisely what a lot of young Americans want. Colleges will keep losing students to schools that offer useful training and a high probability of employment if they don’t start to work with business.

Besides coding academies, there are lots of firms seeking to act as students’ intermediaries between school and work. For instance, there is Work America, which, according to founder Collin Gutman, “gets jobs for people before they start a college class.” 

Stokes sums up: “Taken as a whole, these initiatives suggest a number of ways in which colleges, in collaboration with industry, government, and nonprofit partners, might think about integrating study and work in deeper ways….”

So, what are colleges doing to serve students who aren’t enrolled just for a few years of fun, but are thinking ahead to careers?

Georgia Tech is buzzing with efforts. One is its Capstone Design Expo. Companies can propose projects and sponsor teams. Students who participate start learning about those firms and the relationships that spring up can lead to excellent careers.

Another is GT’s Veterans Education and Training Transition, a four-week “bridge” program in partnership with Hewlett Packard that teaches vets to use their military skills to pursue civilian jobs. 

No doubt the best known of the GT initiatives is its online masters in computer science, a high-quality degree costing only about $7,000. Launched in fall 2014, the program’s returns are encouraging. In the long run, it’s expected to “offer new ways for Georgia Tech to deepen its relationship with industry partners while extending the university’s reach both nationally and internationally.”

At New York University, business-connected programs include Business Boot Camp for Liberal Arts Students. It addresses the fact that many liberal arts students have only a dim (often erroneously negative) idea about the corporate world. The camp promises them “everything you’ll need to take the working world by storm.”

That brings up an important point—schools can collaborate with the business sector and still offer a good liberal arts education. Part of the discovery process colleges will go through consists of figuring out the best educational blends; there won’t be a single right one.

NYU also offers “Professional Advantage,” a three-week summer program that gives students industry and career exposure—a big advantage in looking for entry-level positions.

And Bob Ubell, dean for Online Learning at NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering unabashedly says, “Curriculum that matches corporate objectives is what ultimately sells.” 

Finally, at Stokes’s old school, Northeastern, president Joseph Aoun states, “Employers shape our agenda today.” The university wants to create a “talent pipeline for employers,” and toward that end has collaborated with Bank of America, Duke Energy, Siemens and other firms.

For example, before establishing a master’s in computer science, Northeastern consulted extensively with employers in Seattle (a hotbed of computer titans and also startups) to get valuable insights in the ideal curriculum design. The school has also set up a program called ALIGN (Accelerated Link to Industry through Northeastern’s Global Network) which helps graduates with the proper academic foundations land jobs in fields like bioinformatics and information assurance.

Stokes has expertly highlighted a strong trend in American higher education, but it is one that upsets some educational traditionalists. It especially bothers professors who disdain business and feel that any connections to it will contaminate the pure enterprise of imparting “real” education. But given the wide acceptance of collaborating with business (found even at such liberal bastions such as Middlebury College), schools that hold back because a few faculty dislike the idea will be hurting their chances of survival.

The old model of higher education was, Stokes writes, one of “learn-learn-learn-certify-wait-wait-wait-deploy” but we are moving into a different model of lifetime learning he labels “learn-certify-deploy, learn-certify-deploy.” For many students, that will work far better.

In his book Abelard to Apple, Richard DeMillo noted that for quite a few centuries, we have lived with “faculty-centered” colleges, where students paid their money and learned with the professors thought they should learn. But the faculty-centered college is starting to give way to the original, student-centered concept: schools that are driven to find out what students want. 

What most of them want, I suspect, is postsecondary learning that helps them get into a good career. The changes Stokes discusses are consistent with a competition driven swing back toward student-centered colleges.