How can universities build a skilled workforce?

April 28, 2015

Go to college, get a job. Millions of students believe in the promise, first heard at an early age, that if they follow the pathway to higher education, they will succeed in the workforce. But in our increasingly competitive innovation economy, is this credible?

That’s the question author and Washington Post contributor Jeffrey Selingo asked university leaders and higher education officials during a Global Conference panel on the future of higher education. One aspect they agreed on was that they all have to improve.

“Going to college used to be a privilege,” said Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College. “Now it’s an imperative. For Americans to have any chance at success, they need to get a college degree. This is a big challenge, not only about access to college, but we also need to make sure that students can meet high expectations.”

Part of the challenge stems from the ways universities are structured. Steven Knapp, president of George Washington University, explained that institutions need to preserve their core disciplinary focus while addressing students’ needs in a market-driven society.

A primary solution to the challenge is differentiation. Carol Quillen, president of Davidson College in North Carolina, said it’s important to “give students the opportunity to own their own self-presentation, and then the university can verify the data.” Ways to enable students to expand their education include offering services such as internships that connect them to the workforce and helping them embrace technology. 

And internships and other community work need to be introduced early on in a college career—not during senior year—so that these skills can be nurtured and students have clear expectations about what it takes to succeed once they graduate.

But the panelists argued that the buck doesn’t stop with the universities. There needs to be collaboration across sectors, including preK-12 and government, on setting common, high expectations and demonstrating the value of the education spectrum for the well-being of society.

Purdue University President and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels emphasized building a stronger connection between K-12 and higher education, noting the problem of students taking remedial coursework in college. 

States’ efforts to implement the Common Core standards, which U.S. Department of Education Undersecretary Ted Mitchell noted encourage “nondisciplinary-based competencies” and “deeper learning,” could be a start.

Creating the content to meet high standards and coaching students to mastery are “huge,”  Mitchell said. The key is to “shape connections between the content and experiences, and institutions that can [make those connections] fastest.”