5 Things You Need to Know From the Economist Higher Education Forum

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend The Economist Higher Education Forum, which tackled the question of how to better connect higher education and the workforce.

Panelists from the enterprise, academic, and non-profit worlds presented the challenges facing academia and business, and discussed ways to better prepare today’s college students for tomorrow’s jobs.

We need to align education with the job market.

Perhaps no theme was as recurring as this: Students are not graduating from high school and college with the skills employers need.

The skills gap is most pronounced in STEM fields, but isn’t limited to them. Sydney Heimbrock of the Federal Office for Personnel Management noted that jobs outside of the STEM industry are also in high demand.

Eric Spiegel, president and CEO of Siemans USA, noted that while manufacturing today is primarily software-led, less than 15 percent of high school and 20 percent of college students graduate having taken IT or computer science courses. The company has implemented an innovative apprenticeship program, where students learn on the job while taking classes, and graduate — without debt — with higher starting salaries than traditional college students.

Approaches to closing the skills gap came from every corner: University of Maryland-University College connects its large number of adult students to several corporate partners, while Laureate Education focuses on non-elite students and links them to employers. Lumina Foundation even held a challenge where three companies competed to find innovative, real-world solutions to bridging the skills gap.

We need to look to new places for talent.

Many panelists echoed the massive underutilization of talent across the United States and around the globe. Closest to home, U.S. Department of Education Under Secretary Ted Mitchell focused on the need to solve what he called the “undermatching problem,” where high-achieving, low-income students do not apply to or attend college, for a broad array of reasons.

An even starker look came from NYU president John Sexton, who gave an anecdote of a young Ethiopian man who walked from his remote village to Addis Ababa, lived for months in a cardboard box on the street, and eventually enrolled in NYU’s program in Abu Dhabi. Recognition that talent lives in places where we do not traditionally look for it was definitely visible at the Economist forum.

Ben Nelson, CEO of the Minerva Project, seeks students who are otherwise excluded from the existing education infrastructure and offers an accredited four-year degree at a fraction of the tuition at most universities. The University of the People offers a tuition-free degree to students living in poverty. The qualifications? Proficiency in the English language and Internet access.

Just-in-time learning is the future.

The nature of college-going is changing, and there is increasing agreement that just-in-time learning is a promising next phase.

“This is higher education’s iTunes moment,” said Hannes Klopper, co-founder and managing director of iversity, quoting groundbreaking Internet theorist Clay Shirky. As the unit of measure in education increasingly becomes content, rather than a course or a degree, just-in-time learning becomes even more relevant. “Will University X take a course from University Y and teach it? Absolutely,” says edX CEO Anant Agarwal.

Gerald Chertavian of the non-profit Year Up, says that the four-year college degree is a proxy for some set of abilities that employers want, but that they should be thinking about other ways to identify and measure those abilities. Half of college students are working full-time, and only eight percent of students are getting a traditional four-year on-campus college degree immediately after high school, suggesting that new approaches to education are a must.

Employers value soft skills.

It’s not all about STEM; employers take so-called soft skills, like communication and ability to work in teams, seriously. Year Up, a non-profit organization that supports and empowers urban young adults to succeed in higher education and professional careers, teaches these types of skills through its Professional Training Corps (where participants wear suits, not fatigues, says founder and CEO Gerald Chertavian). Chertavian says that employers hire for skills and fire for behavior, and that they want employees with a strong work ethic and communication skills. Large corporations like Northrop Grumman expressed that they prioritize communication and interpersonal skills when recruiting talent.

The government has a big role to play.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has a bill to drop student loan interest rates to equal the interest rates large banks get when they borrow from the federal government.

That’s an interesting idea, says Alan Solomont, dean of the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, since student loan default rates remain stubbornly high despite a recent decrease. Millennials, he says, are disengaged from the space they should be most active: the public sphere.

In fact, only nine percent of millennials say that their elected officials share their values, and Tufts hopes to engage students in the public discourse with a program, set to pilot in the fall, that would help students spend a year doing community service before starting on campus.

Other voices echoed the government’s role in education. Under Secretary Mitchell reiterated his commitment to college completion, in addition to access. Chertavian focused on funding, saying that “the way we fund community colleges is like giving a starving person crumbs and wondering why they don’t gain weight.”

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