Learning to Do During High Unemployment

Even as the economy appears to have turned a corner, high unemployment persists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the national unemployment rate teetered at 7.9% in January 2013, and New England’s was 7.3% in December 2012.
Strangely, as millions nationwide struggle to find work, there are millions of jobs that remain unfilled. The BLS reports that on the last business day of December 2012, there were 654,000 unfilled jobs in the Northeast and 3.6 million unfilled jobs nationally. In Massachusetts alone, the governor’s office revealed that there were 211,000 people looking for work in a state with over 144,000 job openings.

High unemployment rates may therefore have less to do than commonly assumed with an economy that is not healthy enough to produce jobs or employers who are unprepared to hire, and rather, more to do with a workforce that is improperly trained for the jobs that are available. With 53% of recent college graduates unable to secure jobs, few universities or colleges can aver that their programs and majors match the needs of today’s labor market.

When such a labor mismatch exists, job-seekers tend to look for programs that can prepare them for available jobs and careers. They desire not just knowledge but also skills that translate readily into the workforce. Learning to do becomes even more critical for our students.

It’s a good bet that New England’s state comprehensive universities (SCUs) and community colleges will play important roles in teaching how to do. SCUs, such as Worcester State University, Southern Connecticut State University and Johnson State College, are broad-access public institutions that, nationwide, offer relatively low-priced instruction to millions of students. SCUs and community colleges educate a significant percentage of bachelor’s degree recipients in New England, many of whom are adult learners seeking to upgrade their skills for a job or career.

But are the region’s non-exclusive institutions up to the task? There are reasons to worry.

Going up-market?

What we have learned from our research on innovation is that organizations in all sectors strive naturally to have a larger footprint by going up-market and building their prestige through steady improvement. Although this natural force is an important inclination, the challenge in higher education is that, today, universities do not build prestige by improving teaching and learning.

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Carlson details the elaborate country-club-like amenities blossoming at less-selective universities. Based on the findings of a new report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Carlson summarizes that in an effort to increase student enrollment, these universities are actually de-prioritizing instruction and academic quality. The researchers state that “for many institutions, demand-side market pressure may not compel investment in academic quality, but rather in consumption amenities.”

Such a report validates Kaplan Inc. CEO Andrew Rosen’s argument that, in an effort to go up-market, colleges often layer in a multitude of bundled experiences for students that have nothing to do with learning.

When we pause and consider the soaring price of tuition, shrinking state budgets, the rising costs for traditional institutions to stay competitive with their peers, and the labor mismatch afflicting the economy that positions students poorly to pay back the loans for these educations, the perils of such exorbitant spending become clear.

Even though these institutions were established as learning centers, their incentives appear to be pushing them not only to de-prioritize but also to undermine teaching and learning.

To complicate matters, these broad access institutions’ move up-market is clearing more room for potential disruptive innovations led by a variety of online learning institutions, including both for-profit and nonprofit universities. Many of these institutions are introducing massive open online courses (MOOCs) as well as competency-based programs , in which the amount of time each individual student learns is treated as variable, and students only progress upon mastery of concepts. At their best, these competitors are focusing primarily on employer needs, which begs the question: If New England’s non-elite schools continue on their current path, will they continue to exist and serve a large percentage of Americans seeking higher education?

Potential solutions

Even as the disruptive innovations improve at training-job seekers and connecting them to employers, there exists a significant opportunity for SCUs and community colleges as the more established institutions. Although disruptive innovations transform sectors, they don’t always result in a complete disintegration of the old order. A key insight is that the established organizations that are being disrupted can focus their efforts on defending the parts of their business that are beyond the extendable core of the disruptive innovator’s product. The extendable core is “the aspect of the business model that allows the disrupter to maintain its performance advantage as it creeps upmarket in search of more and more customers.”

In the case of online technologies, for example, as e-learning institutions have been gradually improving the effectiveness of their programs while maintaining cost and convenience advantages, their extendable core is not of much use to students who value attending an elite college because of its exclusivity or to those who desire the social aspects of college afforded by campus living.

The key for SCUs and community colleges will be to figure out where they are likely to succeed—or perhaps more importantly, where what they offer will ultimately not be as valued. As Kevin Kiley writes in his summary of the recent Moody’s report, “the ‘buffet model’ of higher education—where institutions try to be all things to all people—is over.” In this particular case, creating exclusive or residential experiences is not necessarily the forte of these broad-access colleges, nor is it what their student population values. These institutions must therefore ask themselves: What is the most indispensable “job” that our students—many of whom are commuting and already employed—hire us to do for them? Nailing this job will be critical and will enable SCUs and community colleges to make critical resource allocation decisions that can define their sustainable, competitive advantage.

SCUs and community colleges do appear to have a defensible opportunity, even as online learning improves. There are countless careers for which learning knowledge is not a good enough entry point for doing the job well; simulations will not even do. Coupling learning knowledge with learning to do—through on-the-job, in-person training, or on-the-ground projects integrated tightly with regional clusters of employers—is vital.

Indeed, there is evidence that students desire these types of experiences. New England’s less-selective universities may not have to focus on amenities at the expense of teaching and learning in order to compete. UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute recently released its American Freshman Survey in which 88% of college freshmen cited getting a better job as a vital reason for pursuing a college degree—approximately 17 percentage points higher than 2006. This suggests that students would value tailored offerings more closely aligned with their career objectives. SCUs and community colleges therefore have a unique opportunity to return to their original missions of serving the region by figuring out how to align their students better with the industry clusters in the area.

By helping students learn not only industry knowledge, but also specific skillsets for the workforce, universities and colleges can stave off disruption through a laser focus on their job-seeking students. Using real-time labor market information (LMI), SCUs and community colleges could take advantage of their regional positions and reach out to the businesses that surround them to assess the kinds of qualifications for which they are looking.

In ways similar to Northeastern University’s model, a university could help students complete coursework while they’re employed at local businesses through various co-op models. Fairfield University recently announced a new internship program to connect their students with employment opportunities in Bridgeport, Conn., with jobs ranging from positions in city departments to the local animal shelter. Although this is a good start for the Jesuit university, it is unclear whether more private liberal arts or research institutions will be able to emulate such programs with their nearby communities. The matriculated students at such colleges arguably might not desire gainful employment in towns to which they have been temporarily transplanted and at which they do not intend to stay. Moreover, most faculty at more selective institutions and especially those that prize research do not necessarily envision their scholarship and specialization within a discipline as having anything to do with training students and equipping them with specific skills for the workforce.

For regional universities and community colleges, on the other hand—the workhorses of academia—their student populations tend to prize opportunities around the campus, as many are already somehow tied to these geographic areas, whether it is because of work, families, or other personal reasons. SCUs and community colleges have the unique potential to think differently about developing student talent into tangible outcomes. Catering specifically to nontraditional, working commuter students with families will be important if, as Rosen affirms, college is increasingly “a place you return to at periodic intervals, to retool and reload for the next phase of life’s journey.”

To execute on this, these less-selective universities will require a very different model from the one they use today. Such a shift in priorities will not be easy or even feasible for many institutions. Educating students with very different resources, processes and priorities is not a simple, overnight task; however, the need for a new model exists. For those regional colleges up for the challenge of emboldening their missions, priorities must shift toward closing the gap between their newly minted bachelor’s degree holders and their graduates’ potential employment opportunities.

Learning to do in the modern workforce

Such a dramatic shift requires academics, administrators, employers and students to move beyond the derogation and conflation of vocation with low-skill factory-line jobs. The alignment of educated individuals to jobs is something that all universities need to consider at this critical juncture of increased global economic competition. Many of the skills that employers say they most value—and that too many students don’t have—are those that a classical liberal arts education purports to develop, such as the ability to write well, think critically and solve problems in teams. These skills are embedded in learning to do in the modern workforce.

The conversation about higher education is changing slowly from one about graduation and retention rates to one about employment opportunities. Perhaps new kinds of rigorous certificates will become just as or even more meaningful than bachelor’s degrees for certain industries looking for specific skillsets. Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, has already noticed a shift in attitudes about informal certificates provided by MOOCs and was “surprised by how seriously [some] employers are taking informal certificates.”

Our standard of measurement, the credit hour, which has been the basis of student workloads and faculty teaching loads, academic calendars, financial aid and degree requirements, could slowly be shifting to a different kind of standardized unit of measure built around competency and mastery of a particular subject. Perhaps some certificates will hold just as much weight as certain degrees, or, at a more granular level, certificates will become the new majors to transition graduates more seamlessly into the workforce.

As staples in their regions with deep relationships in the community, comprehensive and community colleges have the opportunity to innovate, develop robust offerings and nail this job for students and employers in ways that could not only protect their own campuses, but also revolutionize higher education and boost the nation’s competitiveness.

Michelle Rhee-Weise is an education senior research fellow and Michael B. Horn is executive director of Innosight Institute.

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