Students, Employers Get on the Same Page on Higher Education

Feb 19, 2013

Business leaders and students have similar, interrelated goals when it comes to higher education: students want to get the most out of their degree and secure employment, while businesses want to hire skilled individuals who add value.

But currently, it seems that neither side is completely happy with the results, according to business and student leaders attending “Getting to Work: What Students and Employers Need from Higher Education” event on February 19, 2013.

“How do we make higher education more accessible, affordable and ensure that degrees have labor market value,” asked Margaret Spellings, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The Foundation, along with the Institute for Competitive Workforce and the youth advocacy organization, the Young Invincibles hosted the event.

In an op-ed published in the Daily Caller, Spellings wrote that higher education provides the opportunity for success, but it does not guarantee it.

The United States has some of the finest institutions in the world, and yet, our education system still faces some real challenges we cannot afford to ignore.

Some students don’t go on to college or to get a certificate because they lack information, can’t navigate financial aid systems and cannot bear skyrocketing costs.

Among those who do go to college, some students pay too much and take too long to obtain their credentials. In some cases, those degrees have questionable value in the marketplace, especially when half of businesses in the U.S. report that they can’t find applicants with the skills they need.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the structure of student financial aid systems has done little to promote better outcomes.

The solution, according to a panel of student and business leaders, including Bill Kamela of Microsoft and Aaron Smith of Young Invincibles, is better data from higher education institutions, including information on specific programs and salaries for graduates.  “Students, parents, decision makers want better information on outcomes so they can make informed decisions,” said Jeremy Johnson, co-founder of 2U Inc., a company that partners with universities to offer courses online.

Such a policy may be on the horizon, according to Dr. Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, pointing to a student information bill introduced by Sens. Marco Rubio (FL) and Ron Wyden (OR).

The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act would build transparency in the post-secondary system in ways that allow students and educators to get a better sense how academic programs align with labor market demands, according to Carnevale. “It is not a mysterious process to do this,” Carnevale said. “We have the information required – transcript data and wage records.”

What’s needed, Carnevale says, is the political will to overcome objections and arguments about the education system turning into “Big Brother.” “This is a policy solution that simply awaits the stars to align and I believe they will.”

In her Daily Caller piece, Spellings outlined a broader list of suggestions to refocus on creating results.

We need policies for incentivizing degree completion. The bar is no longer how many students start college but how many actually finish.

We need learning to lead to relevant skills that meet labor market demands. We need to know where the jobs are, what skills are needed to do the jobs of today and the future, and which institutions are producing graduates who can compete for those jobs.

We must fix complicated and counterproductive federal financial aid systems. Are we trying to help students go to college and complete their degrees or are we trying to keep them out? It’s hard to tell with the current system.

We need more and better information from higher education institutions about how money is spent, how much degrees cost and how well credentials actually match job market needs. When 84 percent of engaged American voters think colleges should be required to make information on graduation rates, loan repayment and job placement accessible to students and parents, then institutions should provide that information to their consumers.

And, we must embrace innovation. Every sector of our economy is using technology in new and innovative ways. So should postsecondary education. We need more creative thinking around delivering college instruction in cost-effective and relevant ways.

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