Our education system is failing us — we’ve known that for quite some time — but slowly the issue is getting worse. Those who are graduating from institutions that aren’t preparing them are coming into the workplace without necessary skills to succeed in today’s business environment.
I interviewed Mary Hawkins, president of Bellevue University, a private, nonprofit university focused on adult education, to discuss her organization’s recent findings on why college graduates are not prepared for the workforce and what learning leaders can do about it. She doesn’t think it’s a problem unique to Gen Y, but as skills requirements change and our educational institutions don’t, the problem is only getting worse. Below are Hawkins’ thoughts on what you need to do to get ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.
Let’s talk about your study information a bit. You’ve come to the conclusion that today’s college graduates are often not prepared for the workforce. Tell me a bit more about that.
Hawkins: The recent Bellevue University study, “The Essential Shift in Higher Education: Universities Must Focus on Mastery of Skills and Professional Competencies,” found that 55 percent of Americans do not believe that this year’s college graduates will be adequately prepared to successfully perform a role in their chosen career. This highlights the current problem, which is that too many college graduates are not adequately prepared for the workforce even after earning a college degree. They may have a solid understanding of some of the skills and concepts covered during degree programs, but many lack some of the career-specific and general professional competencies necessary for success in the workforce. This can be attributed to the current approach to learning, in many degree programs, that does not emphasize competency and mastery of skills as part of the curriculum.
The current approach in higher education also appears to be out of touch with the demands of consumers. “The Essential Shift in Higher Education” also found that over two-thirds of Americans (67 percent) said that it would be more valuable for a degree program to focus on skills related to their career. Furthermore, 53 percent of Americans reported they would be more likely to pursue a degree program that provided skills relevant to their career or the workplace in general. This shows that potential students understand that degree programs need to do a better job of preparing graduates for the workforce by focusing on the career-specific skills necessary for success in the workplace.
So, what’s the problem? Is it the curriculum? Does it start in elementary school, high school?
Hawkins: The curriculum in many current degree programs is definitely part of the problem. To prepare students for the workforce, a degree program needs to ensure that students are mastering the material, including career-specific subject matter and professional skills. This approach requires students to master the subject matter, rather than learning just enough to make a certain grade or “pass” a class. Often, in current degree programs, this information is regurgitated on a test and then forgotten.
Courses also need to focus on competency and ensuring students fully grasp the concepts being taught. Curriculum must be relevant to skills needed in the workplace, including communication, critical thinking, problem solving, innovation and professionalism. These skills are relevant in any degree field, and institutions that restructure their degree programs toward achieving these goals will better prepare students for the demands of the workplace.
What’s the solution?
Hawkins: We touched on this a bit already, but through our research, we have identified several major areas where change needs to occur. First, institutions need to implement cost-effective educational solutions. It is very important that colleges and universities ensure that cost is not a barrier to students being able to earn a degree. To do this, institutions can leverage mobile degree programs because they can be offered to students at a lower cost.
Second, personalized learning models need to be introduced. Learning models need to be put in place that allows students to learn at their own pace and from any location. This ties into the focus on competency that we discussed earlier as well. Learning models need to allow students to spend enough time — and extra time when necessary — on each topic to ensure they master the skill before moving onto the next topic.
Finally, colleges and universities need to do more to prepare students for success in the workplace. To achieve this, a stronger emphasis must be placed on mastery of skills and professional competencies.
What’s the corporate learning leader’s role in all of this?
Hawkins: Corporate learning leaders can partner with institutions to ensure that all of the skills that matter to employers are incorporated into future degree programs. At Bellevue University, we have worked with several companies to strategically develop degree programs tailored to the needs of their workforce. Through these partnerships, universities can blend specialized skills that are important to a particular company into the degree program. These customized degree programs can address the specific needs outlined by the company and satisfy employees' education and career goals.
Is this unique to this generation? Was this a problem in the past?
Hawkins: I wouldn’t say that this is a problem that is unique to this generation. However, as the job market evolves toward more high-tech, high-skill jobs, it becomes that much more important for higher education to prepare graduates for success in this environment. According to a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, 63 percent of all job openings will require some level of college education by 2018. This means that for this generation to succeed in the workforce, Americans will have to leverage higher education in order to obtain the proper skill set. In order for them to do this, institutions must ensure that the programs focus on these skills to ensure graduates are prepared to succeed after earning a degree.