Students want more workplace skills from colleges. Will Higher Edition settle?

Today’s high school graduates are increasingly questioning whether higher education is worth it, prompting colleges to rethink the values ​​they bring to students.

This was a key theme I heard at last week’s SXSW EDU conference, where several panels addressed what today’s generation of students want and how colleges can respond. It was also an important issue for me to attend the conference. As a graduate student in Stanford University’s Department of Education and Public Policy, I have spent the past two years exploring the intersection of higher education and the world of work.

One question presented by the ECMC Group during a session on “Is College Worth It?” Regrouping Higher Education noted that today’s students are very focused on the tangible, namely maximizing future career outcomes and earning potential and building durable, technical skill sets. The survey found that 81 percent of students want skills they will use in the working world after college. What they don’t care about, however, is the ever-increasing price of tuition only to graduate without a job to pay off those debts.

In a sign of how many students worry about the return on their college investment, about half of Gen Zers surveyed believe they can be successful through alternative pathways, said Laura Graf, senior director at ECMC Group. He and other experts discussed the need to think more deeply about how colleges define the purpose and value of higher education, especially in the context of the latest generation of learners.

Many people had ideas about how colleges could respond.

Jessica Hinkle, senior vice president of Strada Education Network, said that incorporating work-based learning into postsecondary education programs, along with a career preparation support framework, can be an effective strategy to meet the growing needs of this new generation of students. .

Such work-based learning opportunities, such as “micro-internships,” are already being implemented at institutions such as the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Launched in 2022, the university’s micro-internship and mentorship program connects students with paid positions at local organizations for several weeks.

By framing the program as a paid micro-internship, UNL recognizes that many students, especially those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, may work other part-time jobs while in college. These students do not have the financial resources or time to complete a full-time internship. And without internship experience, these students lack resume-building opportunities to grow professionally and launch their careers. The micro-internship program helps fill that experiential gap with the goal of improving underserved students’ career outcomes and socioeconomic mobility after graduation.

While the program is currently only open to first-generation students and students of color, UNL hopes to eventually expand the effort to provide all students with opportunities to develop lasting professional skills and build social capital.

Another way colleges are responding to this demand for skills in the workplace is by building stronger relationships with employers.

Microsoft technology strategist Charisma Edwards, speaking on a panel about valuable credentials in higher education, noted the importance of building collaborative partnerships between colleges and employers to ensure students have access to the latest career-oriented courses. To build those partnerships, Edwards suggests colleges and businesses have seats on each other’s advisory boards, building an infrastructure of sustainable communication and feedback.

Ultimately, building more skills-based learning in colleges and universities will require more transparency around student career outcomes, greater alignment between colleges and industry, and of course feedback and support from higher education.

“The student is changing,” said Courtney Strayer, a member of the career services team at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Maybe it’s time for the top ed to change along with them.

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