A Return to Normalcy?
By Claudia Neuhauser, Ph.D., Associate Vice President of Research and Technology Transfer, Professor of Mathematics, University of Houston; and Brian Herman, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering and former Vice President for Research, University of Minnesota and University of Texas Health, San Antonio.
We heard the good news. Two (or perhaps three) vaccines that appear to be highly effective are around the corner. This may spell the end of the pandemic or at least reduce the infection level enough to return to some version of normalcy. This may also mean that by Fall 2021, colleges and universities may begin to return to normal operations, in particular, if they require students to be vaccinated before showing up on campus.
The prospect of returning to normal operations after just one or two more semesters of teaching remotely and the associated sighs of relief from all the COVID-19 imposed changes to University operations may quickly remove any enthusiasm to change how colleges and universities operate (remember Y2K). Faculty, students, and staff are simply too exhausted to mount the truly herculean effort it would take to reform higher education.
But let’s not fool ourselves. The end of the pandemic will not spell the end of the higher education crisis. There may be a short reprieve when people celebrate the return to normalcy, but sooner or later, they will realize that all the problems higher education stared at prior to the pandemic will still be there. Before long, we will be back to defending the cost of higher education, the value of getting a 4-year degree, the philosophical and political bent of college campuses, and the size of student debt, even if a Biden administration manages to reduce student debt.
We made suggestions recently in a blog on Higher Education in a Post-vaccine World about ways to reduce the cost of delivering a college education. But reducing cost is only one side of the coin. The other side is adding value to a college education.
A 4-year degree is still worth it
High school students and their parents have heard for a while now that a 4-year college degree is no longer a ticket to the middle class. Colleges and universities cannot ignore that parents and students have good reasons to be skeptical about a 4-year degree. Colleges and universities will need to work hard to convince parents and students about the value of a 4-year degree, and they need to deliver. Glossy brochures about the college experience will not do. Colleges and universities need to become more flexible and responsive to both students and future employers. They must produce graduates at an affordable cost in a timely manner, and graduates must be work-ready and life-long learners to remain employable in a fast-changing economy.
We (still) believe that a 4-year college education is worthwhile even if it is not automatically a ticket to becoming a member of the middle class straight out of college. The microcredentials that are now in vogue are no replacement for a college education, even if microcredentials or other alternatives may lead to a well-paying job much faster without incurring tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. Micro-credentialing programs may work to reskill or upskill a current employee, but they are a poor substitute for college for someone who has no work experience. The problem arises when the technology changes and the skill is no longer needed. Companies may not provide the resources to send people back to reskilling programs while keeping them on the payroll. A company can simply let go any employees they no longer find useful and get a fresh crop of high school students who completed a sought-after microcredential to meet the company’s next short-term need, only to let them go a few years later with few marketable skills, except with that one now obsolete skill, which the company hired them for.
The pandemic compounded the messages about college not being worthwhile anymore and that many of the fastest-growing jobs do not require a 4-year degree. It also created other disruptions in the normal college experience. When students were faced with attending a college or university virtually due to the pandemic, many of them decided to forgo college. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, while enrollment figures for public or private nonprofit 4-year colleges were only down by about 2% from last year, first-time freshman enrollment was down by 10.5% for public 4-year colleges and 8.5% for private nonprofit colleges. Public 2-year colleges suffered even more with an overall decline in enrollment of 9.5%, driven by a decline of 18.9% of first-time freshman enrollment. Only private for-profit institutions did not see a decline. Primarily online institutions were the big winners with an overall increase in enrollment of 6.1%, continuing a trend from the previous year that already saw large increases in enrollment, particularly in the age group of traditional students. Whether this represents a “better return on the investment” in relevant training in higher education or online institutions being better at delivering online content than colleges and universities is not clear.
College ROI — a long-term career investment
But not so fast. College is not just about getting the first job. It is a life-long investment. And it still is the case that about one in four jobs requires a 4-year degree or more, and these jobs tend to pay better, according to employment and wage data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This can be seen in Figure 1, where occupation categories with a higher percentage of jobs that require at least a 4-year degree tend to have higher median annual wages.
While college is not for everyone and more than 70% of jobs do not require a 4-year degree or more, pushing high school students away from a 4-year college may not only result in a shortage in occupations important to our economy it may also prevent them from advancing in their careers several years down the road when they are ready to take on more responsibilities and find that a 4-year degree is required. Unfortunately, real life has a way of getting in the way with work, taking care of children or aging parents, and other obligations, and getting a college degree later in life is much more difficult.
If we want to convince high school students that 4-year degree is still worth it, we also need to make sure that students can graduate within four years instead of five or six years. Every additional year in college adds to the cost of education and, in many cases, to the debt load.
One factor that prevents students from graduating in a timely manner is that college students often take courses at multiple institutions that do not easily transfer as they move from institution to institution. The pandemic changed this, and many colleges and universities have become much more open to accepting courses from transfer students. While this was driven by financial considerations and not the sudden realization that courses, especially lower-division courses, are not nearly as unique as we make them out to be, we hope that this trend continues.
It will take a lot more to convince high school students and their parents that a 4-year degree is still worth it than just reducing the time to graduation. And it is not just parents and students who have expectations about what a college degree should confer. Employers have a long wish list as well.
Colleges must produce work-ready graduates
Industries of today expect more colleges and universities to produce “work-ready graduates.” In the Global University Employability Ranking 2020 survey, 28% of industry respondents stated that they expect higher education to produce graduates who can begin work in a company right away without further training, up from 8% ten years ago.
Many colleges and universities have tried to adapt to what industry wants in a college graduate. However, the fact that Amazon, Google, Dyson, SAS, Seattle Genetics, AT&T, Marriott, and many others have started their own “in house” universities or training programs suggests that colleges and universities fall short of delivering the type of graduate that companies are looking for.
But being “a work-ready graduate” means graduating with soft and hard skills (potentially provided by microcredential courses). Both are equally important. Employers find that colleges and universities all too often focus on theoretical skills at the expense of hard skills, like manipulating an Excel spreadsheet, presenting in front of an audience, or using a project management tool to manage projects with multiple team members and hard deadlines.
College students could utilize any of the many opportunities outside of traditional colleges and universities to acquire the hard skills that companies are looking for. Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, and edX are just three such platforms that offer courses to acquire these skills. These courses work great for those who are already in the workforce, and we have to say more about this below. But for students who are in college, we are of the opinion that colleges and universities would be better off integrating hard skills directly into the curriculum.
Practicing these hard skills in the context of the curriculum would ease the difficulty of knowledge transfer and contribute to their work-readiness. For this to succeed, colleges and universities need to integrate industry partners in every phase of course development and delivery, and employers must engage in articulating what hard skills apply to their industry sector and not just to their own company. Workcred, a partnership of the Association of Public and Land grant Universities (APLU), the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU), and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), recently proposed ways to integrate industry certifications into bachelor’s degree programs as a means to try address this issue.
Employers are also asking for graduating students with soft skills. The top five soft skills listed for the United States in the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s Future of Jobs Report 2020 are analytical thinking and innovation; active learning, complex problem solving; critical thinking and analysis; and resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility.
Soft skills are occupation-independent skills, and colleges and universities advertise that they graduate students with these skills, often by calling attention to their liberal education requirements. But colleges and universities are not doing enough to provide the kind of practices that are essential to reaping the benefits of a liberal education. (The recent AAC&U publication What Liberal Education Looks Like: What It Is, and Where It Happens discusses those practices in detail.) All too often, the liberal education requirements become a checklist, and students choose from a smorgasbord of courses to meet the requirements with little thought as to why these requirements are there in the first place.
Employers will continue to add to the list of desirable skills. For instance, the shift to a digital economy that accelerated with the pandemic will require new skills, like assessing the quality of the evidence that AI algorithms provide. This means that colleges and universities need to continue the dialogue with industry, and college students need to become life-long learners.
Life-long learning is essential in today’s economy
Life-long learning has become a necessity in a fast-moving economy. According to the WEF report we mentioned earlier, “40% of workers will require reskilling of six months or less and 94% of business leaders […] expect employees to pick up new skills on the job.” The job roles that are in high demand but in short supply in the United States reflect the transformation of the economy to a digital economy. The top five roles are AI and machine learning specialists, data analysts and scientists, big data specialists, internet of things specialists, and digital transformation specialists.
The current educational models make reskilling difficult, as a new study from the Strada Education Network indicates: 52% of adults who are already in the workforce don’t believe that they can advance their careers, and for many, the reasons are that they don’t have the right skills or credentials and/or cannot get the adequate training. As we have suggested previously, “[a] radically different approach to enabling life-long learning is needed. Life-long learning must become a family-friendly, seamless integration of education and work that enables employees to add skills while working and raising a family.”
Some of the skills employers are looking for require a Master’s degree. But many of the skills can be acquired within a few months of focused training. Higher education institutions have traditionally been in the market for graduate and professional degrees. To deliver new skills faster to the current workforce, they are increasingly trying to enter the market of microcredentials and certificates. But this is a crowded market. Platforms we mentioned earlier, such as Coursera or edX, offer for free or at low monthly cost access to courses that take a few months to equip someone with the desired skill set. Many large employers make LinkedIn Learning available to their employees and expect them to complete courses as needed.
Employers ask what skills an employee brings, not necessarily how the skills were acquired. They may not care whether a student paid full price at a brick and mortar college or university or $49 a month to a provider at Coursera to learn a skill like programming. This poses a problem for traditional colleges and universities, and it remains to be seen to what extent they can capture a significant market share to reskill the existing workforce. At the current price point, generic microcredentials become financially sustainable only if they attract a very large number of students. And it only takes a few excellent online courses to meet the needs of thousands of employees.
A few 4-year colleges and universities might be successful in capturing a share of the reskilling market. Most 4-year colleges and universities, however, if they entered this market, would likely end up spending much money and energy developing programs only to find that few employees are willing to pay the fees most institutions would need to charge not to lose money.
This gets us back to where we started, namely the need for colleges and universities to add value to a college education. We mentioned one path, namely, to add value by producing work-ready graduates who are life-long learners. This will likely still mean that colleges and universities will need to develop courses that teach hard skills, even if these courses may not turn out to be the cash cow that many colleges and universities are hoping for. Students in their degree programs will need to acquire these hard skills to be work-ready, and they must have opportunities to use the hard skills repeatedly while engaging in the key components of a contemporary liberal education, like “high-impact practices” and “signature work […] that involves substantial writing and reflection,” to acquire the soft skills also necessary to succeed in today’s workplace. And colleges need to partner with industry in an integrated way to succeed in this arena. Many companies are forging longer, more strategic partnerships with a select group of universities in research as a way to concentrate and maximize their ROI on investments in higher education. Such a model may well develop in terms of producing “work-ready” graduates, and those institutions bold enough to move forward rapidly in this area may gain significant advantages in being seen as adding real value to students and their community.