One of the latest assaults on the ivory tower comes from the New America think tank, which recently published a report on the gap between what higher education offers to students and what they need to land jobs.
The report, “Beyond the Skills Gap: Making Education Work for Students, Employers and Communities,” is by Mary Alice McCarthy, a senior analyst at New America. She lays out the problems with higher ed institutions and government policy in providing students what they’ll need to get jobs and keep jobs, and she provides some recommendations for fixing those problems.
One example of the problem cited in the report: A student in Michigan looking to become a medical assistant could choose from 59 certificate programs in the state, with wide differences in time to completion, financial aid, credit hours, value toward an associate degree, wait time, and cost — $4,000 to $20,000.
Here are some of the more interesting points from the report:
To have any chance in today’s job market, you need a college degree. According to the report, people without a college degree are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as those with a degree, and they make half as much money. In 2013, individuals who graduated from high school had an average hourly pay of $16.20 per hour, compared to $29.46 for college graduates.
Post-secondary certificates are the fastest-growing higher education credentials. More than 25% of higher ed credentials are certificates, up from 6% in 1980. Of all undergraduate credentials awarded in 2011-12, 53% were for career education programs.
Multiple surveys show that employers believe graduates aren't prepared for the workplace. And according to recent Gallup polls, 11% of business leaders were confident that higher ed institutions were preparing students for success in the workplace, compared to 96% of college leaders.
Vocational education at the college level is often neglected, looked down on, or ignored by policy makers and college administrators. College leaders also rarely cite career preparation as the primary role of their schools: A survey showed that 21% of college leaders considered gaining career knowledge and skills as the most important reason to go to college, compared to 40% of the general public.
The report recommends reframing the Higher Education Act to create stronger ties with federal education and workforce training programs. As a part of that process, it says, policymakers should stop making artificial distinctions between “education” and “training.”
Accreditation should focus on student outcomes. According to the report, one way that accreditors could help ensure better outcomes for students would be to require higher ed institutions to partner with employers and other community stakeholders, outside of the circle of colleges and universities.
Improved data collection on student outcomes will help hold colleges accountable. Numbers on earnings, debt, and employment should be collected, the report says, and the federal government should track that data.
A better credentials system is needed for students in career education programs. The report also calls the accreditation process for career education programs “completely inadequate.” Non-degree credentials can boost earnings and job prospects for students, but the programs that award them need the help of employers and third-party assessments to give them value.
More focus on development and acceptance of competency-based programs is necessary for their success. These programs reportedly make it easier for students to get the skills employers are looking for. As a result, New America says, federal policymakers should promote the development of competency-based approaches, be they direct assessment, prior learning, apprenticeships, or cooperative education approaches.
New America's bottom line is that policies and attitudes toward career education programs need to shift in recognition of their growing importance and popularity. Combined, certificate and associate-degree-level education aimed at preparing students for specific occupations now makes up more than half of all undergraduate credentials.
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