Why Higher Ed Needs To Do A Lot More Than Hand Out Diplomas

Last month I blogged about the urgent need for colleges to prepare today’s students for high-paying jobs in the workforce. I made the following points:

  1. College is expensive enough. Let’s not put young people into debt without any way out. Graduating into a minimum wage job doesn’t cut it and makes the return on investment for a college education microscopic.
  2. Better-paying jobs that allow for lifelong skill-building is key. Investing four years and a whole lot of money is tough, particularly when the only jobs graduates can find once they get out are part-time minimum wage without benefits. As a career path, this makes no sense.
  3. Is a classical liberal arts education still viable or is workplace skill-building needed? Or do we need both?
  4. Colleges and universities as institutions must bear some level of responsibility for their graduates’ careers. It’s a two-way street. The higher education industry doesn’t stop when a student graduates. Its role can last far longer with better results.
  5. Industry, through relationships with educational institutions, must be an active part of the solution.

Now I’d like to build on these observations with some additional comments. 

Colleges need to lead the way

This is easy to say but are academic institutions really able to improve the lot of their graduates in meaningful ways? And if they are, what do they need to focus on to make this happen? Here are my thoughts: 

  1. LET’S START WITH THE CAREER CENTER. Years ago when I was in graduate business school, I was required to take a non-credit-bearing course in Fortran (that dates me!), not because I was in school to learn to be a programmer but because I needed to have an appreciation for how the world was evolving. Why not think about the career center the same way? Colleges should be requiring students to think about what they are going to do after four years of college. And to consider what courses or programs they need to take along the way to better prepare them for those jobs. Remember, there are 5.6 million job openings based on a February 2016 article in CNN Money. My suggestion is to make a course at the career center a required but non-credit-bearing course. But students themselves might have even better ideas about how the career center can help prepare them. And what about those students who know what they are going to do once they graduate? Sure, they are focused at the moment on doing what is necessary to pursue their career. But what if that career doesn’t work out, or suddenly in their junior year they fall out of love with their chosen path, or they don’t qualify for their degree and are left floundering for a career? Wouldn’t be nice if there was a campus organization they could turn to for solid career advice and a way forward, particularly if their alma mater has deep relationships with companies and key industry leaders, both large and small. You can find the best colleges for career centers here.
  2. MAYBE GUIDANCE IS REQUIRED. Some skills require book learning and others need guidance. The alarm should NOT go off in college students’ senior year telling them they are not prepared either academically or experience-wise to meet the needs of a particular job or industry. Higher education should be as much about preparing students for their future in the workplace with internships, experiential learning and mentorships as it is about the “college experience.”
  3. GAINING EXPERIENCE. Forget that line: “No experience necessary”! Experience and internships are very good at selecting candidates for jobs, particularly initial jobs. When I graduated college or for that matter, graduate school, I just plain didn’t know what to do. Perhaps this was because I spent my summers working as a camp counselor. I see now that working in fields related to what I wanted to pursue would have served me better. One of my daughters had a much more meaningful experience than I. She spent a summer working as a physical therapy aid and quickly realized that it was not the field for her. So she was way ahead of me because she tried out a career field and was able to evaluate whether to pursue it or not.Yes, heavily utilizing the career center is important but connecting with college alumni for internships is also crucial because career-related experience really does make a difference.
  4. ALLOCATION OF RESOURCES. Since I am not on the inside, I don’t know how colleges and universities allocate their resources with respect to their career office. But if they do not value these resources in the same way as investing in a technology laboratory or endowing a facility chair, it could be a big mistake. A career center needs to be thought of as a crucial resource that sustains the academic institution, and a vital part of the mix for attracting students and building a bond between the institution and its community.
  5. PERHAPS THE CULTURE OF THE HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTION NEEDS TO BE REVISITED. Think about changing the culture of your institution. If your college or university is not thinking about jobs, job placement and what is out there for students after graduation, it ought to. Very few higher education institutions can sustain themselves without an active alumni group that is employed with good paying jobs. “Publish or perish” is great but student placement also must count for something! Perhaps tenured facility (and the administration) should give as much priority to job placement as they do to publishing. The world is changing and priorities need to also.

Want to dig deeper? Read our blogs on higher ed.

At Simon Associates Management Consultants, we have done a lot of work helping higher education institutions develop innovative ideas to build more collaborative environments. We’ve written several blogs on the subject and invite you to read them. (Click the red bar below.) Let us know if they spark some ideas that you can apply to your own institution. Then contact us to discuss how we might help your college or university successfully adapt to today’s many changes so that it not just survives but thrives.



Andy Simon, Partner
Simon Associates Management Consultants  

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