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The Uncertain Future of the Traditional College

As the college graduate hiring rate declines to the highest number in decades, colleges are in the midst of an existential crisis.

Why it matters: The demand for intentional learning that leads to jobs will continue to grow. But new paths for education could open the door for an education revolution that brings even more players into the market and these new entrants don’t have robust review boards or any accountability for outcomes. If these players remain unregulated, we could see a repeat of the predatory practices of many of the for-profit colleges that led students to spend money on falsely promoted outcomes that only depleted resources and left them in a worse position than where they started.

While there is a positive outcome when corporations step up to fill skill gaps by providing free to freemium learning opportunities, these efforts are not a substitute for high-quality, well-rounded educational systems.

By the numbers: Data from the Labor Department released in spring 2020 showed that unemployment for 20- to 24-year-old College Graduates was above 20%, compared with the low teens for all age groups. Those numbers included students that had been promised future employment but had not started work.

  • Job offers for many of these students never converted to paying jobs by the end of 2020, increasing the actual unemployment rate.
  • According to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), 74 percent of U.S. full-time MBA programs saw a large uptick in applications. A similar increase in applications occurred during the last recession.

Between the lines: There is a growing disconnect between the skills colleges are training students to bring to the market and the skills employers need to hire.

  • According to Gartner, only 16% of new hires possess the needed skills for both their current role and for future roles.
  • U. S. Employers are increasingly offering training programs to reskill their current employees to address the widening skills gap.
  • The Global Corporate Training Market is projected to grow by approximately $53 Billion between 2020 to 2024.

What’s Happening: Old ways of predicting skill needs are not working for colleges. And the traditional college ecosystem was not designed for constant flexibility. Students need relevant, fast, and effective skill improvement that translates easily into the workforce.

  • “The number of skills required for a single job is increasing by 10% year over year, and over 30% of the skills needed three years ago will soon be irrelevant,” according to Gartner TalentNeuron™ data analysis on millions of job postings.
  • Employers are also hiring for what Deloitte refers to as ‘superjobs.’ Superjobs are “roles that combine work and responsibilities from multiple traditional jobs, using technology to both augment and broaden the scope of the work performed and involve a more complex set of domain, technical, and human skills.”

The Impact: Colleges have contributed to an educational void in the market. Students and Professionals are increasingly turning to alternative venues for reskilling and upskilling with mixed job results.

  • Thirty-three states are now collecting quantitative data on the attainment of credentials by high school students. According to BurningGlass Technologies, “of the 30 states where data was made available, no state is highly aligned in terms of supply of credentials earned by high school students and demand for those credentials in the job market.”
  • The trend of ‘… And you get a badge, and you get a certificate …’ has become merely a game without alignment or standards for outcomes. Limited data transparency on results and success measurements based on anecdotal stories and attribution leaves professionals spending time and money on unnecessary and ineffective learning.

External Obstacles: The biggest obstacles for colleges are the mindsets and divergent requirements of their multiple stakeholders. The stakeholders are unreliable subject matter experts for providing meaningful data points that collectively yield new product ideas.

Many Employers are increasingly looking for “skills that pay the bills and grow revenue,” but continue to include traditional college degrees and majors as a gateway requirement in job descriptions. The impact is the opposite of what is needed to address the skill shortage and sends confusing signals to colleges, students, and parents.

  • Companies have outdated job descriptions and job banding that make it challenging to create authentic skill-based job requirements
  • Traditional job descriptions are difficult to update for legal reasons. Many pay bands and titles are based on a college degree as the minimum requirement. Breaking the bands means evaluating every job description and salary within that band and maybe even the entire company. It means breaking the traditional hierarchy system.

Many Parents and Educators have a bias for in-person learning.  This bias makes it difficult to create a dynamic and flexible ecosystem where the Subject Matter Experts (SME), majors, minors, and certificate programs must be fluid. And even more daunting, this bias for central locations for learning forces relocation of students, and the revolving door of SMEs to a geographical location for face-to-face instruction, making it increasingly cost-prohibitive to the college, students, and parents.

  • You can find lots of data to support the position that face-to-face learning is better and has better outcomes.
  • However, as many data scientists have pointed out, the data is not refined enough to conclude which type of learning results in better outcomes, online or face-to-face. What the research doesn’t answer:
    • Is the discrepancy in learning outcomes due to the professors not having the right skills or background to create an exceptional learning experience online?
    • Is the discrepancy seen during the pandemic a socio-economic issue based on software, hardware, and connectivity issues?
    • Is the study refined enough with a well-designed integrity framework to evaluate whether the research holds true across all subject areas as many blanketly conclude, or are there nuances between subject areas when looking at the raw data?

The Government programs, including Federal Student Loan Programs and Grants, have not been updated to include funding for non-traditional college offerings.

Internal Obstacle: Many Colleges continue to focus on a shrinking customer population – the high school graduate. Continuous learning has the potential to bring back an extensive customer base that could stabilize balance sheets and promise consistent revenue flow.

The Course Correction: Many colleges are proactively taking steps to rethink, realign, and rebuild an ecosystem that more closely aligns with the primary purpose of students attending college – to be employable.

Examples of colleges rising to the challenge:

  • BYU-Pathway Worldwide allows students to try out classes before committing.
  • UGA allows undergraduate students to combine their major with a certification in an emerging growth area instead of a minor. The certificate is not bound by the requirement of being offered by your major’s department.
  • Community College of Denver is creating a subscription plan for returning students.
  • Georgia Tech offers online technology boot camps where students learn new technology skills, create real-world portfolios, and prepare for the top certifications hired by employers.
  • Northeastern University partnered with IBM in 2017 to be the first college to accept corporate digital badges in emerging technologies for undergraduate and graduate class credit.

The Bottom Line: Only colleges that pivot to realign to the 21st Century, will survive.

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