Containing Costs and Creating Alternatives in Higher Education

May 03, 2016

How can we make post-secondary education more affordable and more relevant to today’s job market?

The dilemmas of soaring costs and diminishing practical value — and potential solutions — were considered during the “College to Career: Reimagining Higher Education for the 21st Century Workforce” panel discussion at the Milken Institute Global Conference.

Most employers still see a college degree as a must-have credential, yet half of all recent graduates are underemployed, said moderator Jeffrey Selingo, a professor at Arizona State University and author of “There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow.”

“The pipeline that has educated people from school to college is broken,” he said. “So how do we fix it?”

In his book, Selingo divides people in their mid-20’s into three categories based on how they spent their years after high school: Sprinters, Wanderers and Stragglers. Among the biggest factors in determining which group young people land in: whether they have done internships, since many companies prefer to hire from their internship pool, and how much debt they take on.

Technology has disrupted many industries, but has had less impact on education, said Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the Federal Communications Commission. “I have a front-row seat to the digital revolution, but that change stops at school doors,” she noted. “Many schools are still in the analog era.” Most of the jobs today’s students will hold don’t even exist yet, she added, and digital fluency is a must. “We live in a world where technology is now a language,” she said. “We need to teach it that way.”

The ideal scenario for post-secondary education should include many alternatives and points of entry and exit, said Steven Knapp, president of George Washington University, where internships and career readiness are integrated throughout the college experience for all students. “We need to make sure that career orientation isn’t an afterthought,” he said. Knapp also noted that schools need to figure out how to measure students’ mastery of the soft skills all employers are looking for: critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork and leadership.

Eric Spiegel, president and CEO of Siemens USA, described his company’s apprenticeship program designed to build the company’s middle-skill workforce. The company pays for students to get a two-year degree or certificate while they work. Participants emerge from the program with zero debt and a guaranteed job with an average yearly salary of $55,000. Several panelists commented that the word “apprenticeship” in the U.S. can carry negative connotations; Spiegel said companies like his need to educate students about the merits of such alternatives to the current college path. Most of the company’s apprentices do go on to receive a four-year college degree, he added.

Igor Tulchinsky, founder and CEO of WorldQuant LLC, described a new model of higher education. His company created WorldQuant University, which offers the world’s first free online accredited master’s degree in quantitative finance. The school has an enrollment of 100 students from 15 countries. “Our pipeline is becoming global, just like other online-delivered services,” he said. “Amazon and Google are global. Why shouldn’t education be too?”

Tulchinsky and Spiegel both said that new careers have led to a proliferation of alternative credentials, which the industry should work to standardize to make it easier for employers to see their value. 

Watch the Full Discussion