So, What Are Liberal Arts Colleges Missing?

I have written several blogs lately about how students are graduating from colleges and universities with few marketable skills and therefore are largely unprepared to get high-paying jobs in today’s workplace. They can’t service debt, can’t buy cars and certainly can’t afford houses. Not great for our economy!

Although the U.S. educational system has flaws, one state gets it.

In an effort to reverse this trend and make college more affordable and accessible for all, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in January that tuition will be free for residents who earn up to a certain income cap to be phased in over the first three years of the program.

Undergraduates attending a State University of New York or City University of New York school will be eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship if their families earn less than $100,000 a year. That will rise to $110,000 in the second year and $125,000 in the third year, 2019. Those who qualify will pay nothing for tuition, which costs $6,470 annually at four-year schools and about $4,350 at community colleges. (They will still be on the hook for room and board fees if they live on campus, which run about $14,000 a year).

What’s great about this plan is that it reduces or even eliminates the debt burden for students (again, a huge drag on our economy). They say a rising tide lifts all boats, which is what I’m hoping Cuomo’s plan does, creating a better path for college graduates to get high-paying jobs. This is what I’d like to focus on here—high-paying jobs—because irrespective of the cost of an education, good high-salary jobs eliminate or reduce all the other problems.

High-paying jobs are out there, so why aren’t they being filled?

I was traveling several weeks ago and saw the following headline in the USA Today financial section: “Tech jobs are thriving across US- up to 7.3M.” The article reported that the tech market is booming, up 2% last year, with 7.3 million workers in the field. But equally important, the article stated that there are now almost 700,000 unfilled positions in tech.

This didn’t come as a shock to me. Last year, I attended the Michigan College Alliance where the Chief Hiring Officer from General Motors spoke, saying that GM needs to find 10,000 tech-savvy people to meet their needs. Can you believe it, 10,000!

Another fact from the USA Today article which I find worth noting is that the average tech job pays $109,000, nearly twice as much as the national average of $53,000. And while these numbers probably don’t apply to kids just graduating from college, they do prove that there is a future in the tech industry and it is very bright.

So, doesn’t that beg the question (or rather, a whole host of questions): How come these jobs can’t be filled? If these positions are open and high-paying, why don’t college graduates qualify for them? What are we doing in education to pair graduates with job openings? Shouldn’t we re-examine our education and training systems, because perhaps they are not doing what they are intended to do?

We seem to have failed to prepare students for jobs after college.

Based upon the data, we probably can conclude that we are not doing so well. In Thomas Friedman’s latest book, “Thank You for Being Late,” he talks about the importance of lifetime learning, yet I am sure that unless we provide some anchors for people while they’re still in college, they can’t acquire the skills necessary to be lifelong learners. Case in point: How many students graduate from high school and even college without meaningful analytical skills? And we all know that without these skills, they are not prepared to compete in the 21st century. Far from it.

More than one place to lay blame.

While it’s easy to do some finger-pointing at colleges, let’s not place all the blame with higher education. It starts much earlier than that. In elementary and then secondary school, we allow too many students to opt out of academic assessment exams. This inevitably leads to a lack of accountability.

Furthermore, we don’t have a rigorous pre-college environment that requires kids to take STEM classes which would give them the basic skills required to perform in today’s increasingly technical world. Instead, many of them are taking courses that are not terribly useful for the 21st century.

Now, while I have placed some of the blame on secondary education, there is plenty of blame to go around. A large number of high-priced colleges also do a great disservice to students, saddling them with significant debt without sufficiently preparing them for available jobs in the marketplace that meet our society’s current needs and, therefore, pay well.

So where do we go from here?

Until the American educational system intentionally commits to linking jobs, job skills and job requirements with the way they are educating their students, from elementary school all the way through college, I don’t see much hope. We need to ensure that those who teach and those in administration understand that the purpose of education is to create lifetime learners and at the same time, turn out productive people in the marketplace.

Unless this happens, there will continue to be a disconnect between what our graduates learn and what they need to learn in order to find jobs, have careers and perform well in the world.

To read more on how well (or not so well) higher ed is doing, check out our blogs on the subject.

At Simon Associates Management Associates, we have extensive experience working with colleges on innovation and change, and have a proven track record of helping them realign their business models in order to better prepare their students for today’s marketplace. We’ve written several blogs on the subject; please let us know if they spark some ideas that maybe you can apply to your own organization. We’d love to hear from you.



Andy Simon, Partner
Simon Associates Management Consultants  

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