Earth to Business: Wake Up!

There’s a widening disconnect between the world of work and what universities produce. According to the Center for College Affordability & Productivity almost half of all U.S. college graduates are in jobs that require less than a college degree. And surveys suggest that 60% of grads can’t find work in their field of study. Meanwhile, corporate executives say that not only can they not find qualified applicant for a wide range of jobs, but many graduates also lack the discipline for and understanding of today’s workplace.

I’ve been a senior official for over 30 years at The Heritage Foundation, a major public policy think tank, and I’ve hired dozens if not hundreds of young graduates. I can sympathize with frustrated employers. You can tell very little from a transcript about the likely quality of a new hire’s work. So they have a 3.8 GPA from an accredited university. So they passed statistics at the 300 level at XYZ University. But what do they actually know? And did their civics courses really teach them how Washington works? Hiring new graduates these days is an expensive gamble.

Employers are going to have to wake up to the fact that they need to become partners or even leaders in the reform of higher education, for their own immediate self-interest as well as for the general future of the American economy. How can they do that? You might think: Why don’t employers administer their own tests to verify knowledge? One problem with that is the risk of triggering a “disparate impact” lawsuit if a test appears to have the effect of disproportionately fewer minority hires.

But there are several ways that business can help assure better equipped graduates in the future.

First, business leaders need to step forward and help education reformers end the distorting and constricting effects of traditional accreditation – a dismal measure of skills acquisition and course quality – and encourage instead the spread of degrees built on externally credentialed courses that identify measurable competence. Fortunately many newer institutions, such as the Western Governors University system, emphasize competency-based measures that give employers a clearer picture of what students actually know.

Second, business needs to get behind efforts to bring transparency into the murky world of higher education, and especially to public universities where their tax dollars are also on the line. Businesses in Texas, for instance, have rallied behind efforts to force the public Texas universities to disclose accurate and meaningful measurements of quality. CEOs in other states need to demand similar reforms.

And third, the business community needs to work more closely with institutions of higher education and with the new breed of online and blended learning colleges to help fashion courses of study that are more connected with the future US economy. Some older institutions, like Drexel University in Philadelphia, have always made a combination of work experience and academic study a basic part of their approach. Education innovator Salman Khan has written and spoken on how to rethink the idea of a degree in today’s economy to address the mismatch between what universities supply and employers need. And some employers, such as Walmart, have even developed partnerships with colleges (in Walmart’s case the for-profit American Public University System) to provide online courses for their employees to complete degrees that match the employer’s needs.

American business can’t just continue to grumble passively about the product of our education system. Business leaders have to lead change.

Posted by: Stuart Butler

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