Three hard truths that will save higher education

We owe it to them to fix the system.
We owe it to them to fix the system.
Image: AP Photo
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Computer skills have become essential for nearly 80% of middle-skill jobs, but according to a new report, nearly a third (32%) of Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 have no work-related computer experience. The report, published by recruitment company Indeed, illustrates the mismatch between employers and job seekers: employers have more open positions requiring computer and technical skills than there are qualified candidates.

As a society, we are investing more into education than ever—millennials are the most educated generation in US history. Higher education used to guarantee a job and a better life, but today only 20% of college students feel “very prepared” to enter the workforce.

The sheer enormity of this problem and the multitude of stakeholders involved makes it easy to pass blame around. Instead, we should work together to appreciate and adapt to the growing demand for skilled talent in a technical age is radically evolving faster than ever before. Here are three truths that I believe the entire education ecosystem needs to take on together:

A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work

Higher education isn’t just about learning a skill—it’s about exploring your interests, developing as a human being, meeting new people, and, for some people, learning how to do your own laundry.

But given the rising costs for higher education, enrolling in college can leave some people worse off. For students in the bottom 25th percentile, a college degree doesn’t translate into a higher salary.

It’s painfully obvious at this point that a one-size-fits-all, “college for everyone” approach isn’t working, and that people should have more opportunities to explore whether high-quality career and technical education might be better for them.

Education should be better aligned to outcomes

Unsurprisingly, students expect higher education to prepare them to be successful in the workplace. In a survey of college freshmen, 88% cited getting a better job as a vital reason for pursuing a college degree. But there’s a disconnect between the skills and knowledge that colleges believe they’re providing and the actual outcome of that education: only 11% of business leaders perceive college graduates to be ready for work, while 96% of chief academic officers think that students are adequately prepared.

Again, for many students, college plays an essential role in their personal development. But with the average student spending six years getting a degree and taking on $37,000 in debt, schools need to do a better job ensuring that students also gain the skills necessary to launch a career that helps pay down that debt.

Lifelong learning is now a necessity

Gone are the days when you go to college for four years straight, get a job and work at the same company until you retire. With so much of our world now powered by technology, the rate of change in the workplace is happening at a tremendous pace, and professionals in every industry need find ways to “up skill” throughout their careers. A recent study concluded that, while smart technology and automation may not wipe out jobs, they will undoubtedly affect nearly every occupation, changing the nature of how we work and, more importantly, how we continue to learn.

Companies that recognize the inherent value in investing in talent early on will gain a competitive advantage in this new economy and ultimately win out. Many are looking for smarter ways to skill up large parts of their workforce, retraining employees for the skills required to stay competitive today and tomorrow.

“Five years from now…”

The ways in which we learn, work and build our lives is evolving so rapidly that the higher education system can no longer support itself. These three truths may be tough for some students, educators and employers to accept, but the ones who do will help ensure education once again becomes the best investment anyone can make.

It won’t be achieved quickly and it won’t be easy, but the good news is that it’s already happening. While we obsess over the opportunities created by new technologies like virtual reality and self-driving cars, we’re also witnessing one of the largest transformations in the history of American education—in both the private sector (for example, Google’s Teachers in Residence program that sends its engineers to teach at HBCUs) and the public sector (like the Department of Education’s EQUIP, which allows colleges and universities to partner with non-traditional education providers like coding boot camps).

Silicon Valley veteran Phil Libin may have said it best: “It won’t happen overnight, but five years from now it’ll feel like it did.”