Preparing the Workforce of the Future: How Higher Ed Can Adapt Its Value Proposition

By Melody Rose, Ph.D.

Like any organization, institutions of higher education must evolve or ultimately they will perish. Many college administrators readily acknowledge this trend following the precipitous drop in enrollment in recent years. Since peaking at 18.1 million in the 2010-11 academic year, aggregate undergraduate enrollment has declined by some three million students. The decrease has touched all sectors of higher education. The most recent National Student Clearinghouse data indicate undergraduate figures have steadied year-over-year, with encouraging enrollment prospects at community college and in certificate programs; however, the number of students seeking bachelor’s degrees continues to decline and the overall trajectory of higher education enrollment is uncertain, especially for the most vulnerable sub-populations.

The pandemic certainly has been a factor in recent declines, as has the falling birth rate that began after the Great Recession of 2008. But another factor is the growing perception that a degree simply may no longer be the best path to career prosperity.

Adapting to Change

In his book The College Devaluation Crisis: Market Disruption, Diminishing ROI, and an Alternative Future of Learning, former president of Temple University Jason Wingard describes the factors contributing to the crisis in higher education, including the “enrollment cliff” and a failure to keep up with the rapidly evolving skills needs of employers which has led to the devaluation of a degree. I would add to those factors that faith in higher education has plummeted because the cost of attendance has risen faster than inflation and far too many graduates are mired in student debt. At last count students/graduates in the aggregate owed a staggering $1.75 trillion. Borrowing a business term referencing the need for innovation, Wingard, in an Op Ed, stresses that America’s higher education institutions must “change or die.”

But if such change equals survival for all but the most highly selective institutions, the question for institutions notoriously slow to act becomes: how?

University leaders can’t affect demographics, just as they can’t quickly and significantly lower price (although change there is imperative). But they can focus on their institution’s value proposition: rethinking how to educate students to join the workforce.

They need not do this alone. Meaningful change will require a team effort on the part of administrators, trustees, faculty, staff and even students. “Without a shared understanding of the campus business model and its forecasts for future sustainability, they cannot be full participants in shared governance and aid in making the kinds of prudent change that can protect their institution’s mission,” Larry D. Large and I write in Higher Education Business Models Under Stress: Achieving Graceful Transitions in the Academy.

Change also must not necessarily shock the system of today’s colleges and universities. As Large and I note, and the name of our book implies, even structural, significant change “can be implemented gracefully” – in a manner that is both financially sound and respectful of institutions’ legacies and their myriad constituents. To manage change gracefully requires both functional and attitudinal commitments: a functional commitment to leveraging sufficient time and resources to steward the institution during change, and the attitudinal commitment to truly care for the institution and its people.

Maintaining Relevancy

Throughout their history, American colleges and universities have prepared students to join the workforce and have worked through significant changes to do so. But seismic shifts in the working world — and in the graduates who will soon enter the workforce — mean the ways that higher education prepares the workforce must change. Adding to that imperative is economic uncertainty, which traditionally leads to heightened concerns about workforce development. That’s because a robust economy requires an equally robust labor market.

Taken together, these trends translate into tremendous pressure both to do something different and to do it quickly.

As Wingard noted in his book, corporate America is signaling that if higher education doesn’t meet its talent pipeline needs, it’s more than willing to look elsewhere. The latest employer survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) found that fewer than half of respondents think college graduates are “very well prepared” in the skills they rate as most important for success. That’s a significant drop from the 67 percent of employers who believed college graduates had the skills they required in 2013. As a result, many businesses have dropped requirements for a college degree, instead relying on in-house and external training programs to provide new hires with the necessary functional and technical skills. State governments are following suit.

But the fact that employers are increasingly offering highly technical job-focused training doesn’t necessarily mean colleges and universities are left out. For example, programs that teach students how to code typically do not focus on developing the skills that employers rate as most essential for workplace success — collaboration, critical thinking, data analysis and interpretation and communication.

According to McKinsey, this narrow scope, focused on the immediate needs of a company, combined with the lack of training on the essential skills employers say they need, are reasons corporate training alone falls short. Technical skills development, which comprises the bulk of most corporate training, is no replacement for an arts and sciences education that includes broad instruction in essential skills and opportunities to practice them. Because corporate America isn’t delivering the skills outcomes it clearly wants and needs, there’s a critical opportunity for meaningful partnership with colleges and universities. To fill this gap, leaders must reassert their institution’s primacy in the delivery of those essential skills by aligning curriculum with industry needs and staying fresh with market trends.

Reforming the Curriculum

Internally, presidents and chancellors can set the expectation for industry partnership in curricular innovation — and hold academic leadership accountable for those partnerships. In turn, provosts, deans and department chairs can steer institutions to better prepare students for the workforce by placing a stronger focus on professional practices, no matter the discipline.

Student artists, for instance, can only make a living as artists if they can sell their work. That means, in addition to courses on the history and technique of their artform, they need training in the workings of the art market, itself; how to navigate the myriad constituencies and relationships that move the market; how to display and market their work; and even how to network to successfully enter the art workforce. Within the STEM arena, there are opportunities for practical application through supporting lab-based research within and outside the institution through tech transfer and monetization of discovery and innovation. Other educational areas need this same approach, adapting curriculum and providing real world opportunities for skill development.

A dual focus on disciplinary skills and practical applications is necessary for a future career and can enhance institutions’ value proposition. That focus can then attract greater numbers of students, improve outcomes and satisfaction, and thereby increase the value of a degree. In turn, these successful graduates will become loyal alumni due to their alma mater’s investment in them.

Curriculum can also be developed in conjunction with employers by establishing industry advisory councils. This form of collaboration allows faculty to better understand evolving employer needs and how they can be best met in the classroom. It also can help to accelerate the curriculum development timeline, benefitting employers who need skilled workers now as well as the institution, which is likely under pressure to constantly update its classroom offerings. And of course, faculty deserve the support necessary to do this kind of innovative work, through professional development and incentives to encourage trial and error.

Creating collaborative relationships between institutions and mission-aligned industries can also lead to ancillary benefits. Corporate representatives on an advisory council may become so invested in a new program that they prioritize the hiring of its graduates and even offer scholarships to attract talented students. In addition, the more relevant that course of study is to the industry wanting to hire graduates, the more job offers that will be extended, which creates more loyal alumni and donors. Those efforts can lead to greater interest in the institution, resulting in tuition revenue growth. This can be used to enhance a virtuous cycle by rewarding academic leaders and faculty for their innovation efforts.

These benefits offer incentives to speed up curriculum development by partnering with industry and investing in faculty in that effort.

Scaling Workforce Development

The benefits of industry partnerships reach well beyond those available to institutions of higher education. A 2022 Harvard Business School study by management professor Joseph Fuller and senior researcher Manjari Raman found these relationships are imperative to helping solve the current labor shortage.

However, supplying corporations and industries with the workforce they need may require large institutions and university systems that can provide efficiencies of scale in terms of numbers of students, areas of faculty expertise and research capabilities. An example of such a mutually beneficial partnership includes one between the University of Cincinnati (UC) and Procter & Gamble, which launched a Simulation Center at the university. The partnership has provided work experience for nearly 500 UC students and delivered technological advancements for P&G’s product portfolio. While some students went on to full-time positions at P&G, others parlayed their experience to work at companies including Amazon, General Electric, Microsoft, PayPal and Tesla.

For employers seeking solutions to complex social, environmental, and economic issues, collaborating with universities may be even more valuable. Connecting with researchers and students can speed up the development of solutions and provide a workforce prepared to address the concerns of today and tomorrow.

College and university leaders can take a proactive approach to forming these partnerships, highlighting their institution’s value to employers and industries, without waiting for an invitation.

Prioritizing Continuous Improvement

Constantly and consistently updating curriculum and developing mutually advantageous industry collaborations may present challenges. But with survival at stake, leaders must acquire new capabilities, including a willingness to rethink their own roles and performance measurements, as well as curriculum and pricing models. They need courage to partner with internal and external stakeholders and the ability to pivot, allowing them to create new paradigms that better prepare the workforce of the future.

At this critical time in the history of American higher education, institutions demand it, and our students deserve it.