GenFKD is trying to answer a question reverberating around the nation today. Time and time again, we hear it asked: is college worth it?
Decades ago, the answer was clear. Degrees weren’t necessary for most jobs, and those who did choose to go to college paid much less for an experience that gained them much more. Today, skyrocketing prices and corresponding student debt, uncertainty around postgraduate employment, and questionable returns on this now-massive investment have compounded to make degrees seem, to many, not worth it.
Data continues to tell us that universities (and the many opportunities that come with them) are too costly, to the point of being exclusionary, for a huge number of young people. At the same time, the labor market is telling us that college is, in fact, important; not only to be eligible for the best jobs in our new economy, but to develop a higher level of critical-thinking skills crucial to success in an ever-more-complex world.
Degrees, careers and the gap between
At the very least, the degree still matters. According to the Center on Economy and the Workforce at Georgetown and the Department of Education, the wage premium and demand for college graduates has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, with graduates typically making 66 percent more than high school diploma-holders. A whopping two-thirds of U.S. jobs will require higher education by 2020, while those that don’t get it now are “falling out of the American middle class.”
But is it just a degree that ensures postgraduate success? No. The truth is, employers in the fastest-growing and highest-paying fields are asking for a specific mix of skills that they think come with a college degree: a specialized knowledge coupled with high-order analytical skills, and a familiarity and willingness to work with diverse backgrounds. MIT Economist David Deming confirms this, noting that, “since the ‘80s, job and wage growth has been strongest in occupations requiring both high cognitive and high social skills.”
Herein lies a crucial gap: Even while calling for degree-holding applicants, many top employers are citing a major lack of these desired hybrid skills in their new hires. Countless outside players (e.g. skills bootcamps) have sprung up to fill these gaps, and they’re right to do so given that, by and large, colleges have not.
Employers and students both still value college degrees, but they now also want colleges to develop crucial skills that can apply to any career. 94 percent of Bentley University’s survey respondents agree on the necessity of combining academics with hands-on learning.
According to Bentley President Gloria Larson, “In today’s job market, employers are looking to fill positions with multi-faceted employees who possess technical skills such as data visualization coupled with soft skills such as communication and collaboration.”
Northeastern’s Joseph Aoun echoed Larson at Boston’s recent HUBWeek event, calling data and coding a “new literacy,” while simultaneously noting that simply teaching these skills in college is “not enough” without simultaneously creating more opportunity for students progress. GenFKD is answering this call by building a program within universities to develop these top-desired skills while improving access and opportunity.
Until now, despite employer demand for college degrees, we have delineated few clear pathways from college to 21st century careers – and it shows. The Department of Labor reports that “almost half of working graduates are underemployed,” while EPI notes that the percentage of bachelor’s degree-holding young adults working in low-wage industries has grown “from 23 percent to 33 percent between 2000 and 2014.” It’s clear that colleges need new ways to help all students develop better transitions from school to the workforce.
Along with 77 percent of the stakeholders in the Bentley study, I personally still believe in colleges. Developmentally, in early adulthood our brains begin to be able to analyze information and collaborate like never before, thus making it a crucial time to lay the foundation for future success.
At its best, college can provide these learning-hungry brains with a unique environment: a challenging, ever-present peer and intellectual community, one-on-one guidance from faculty and advisors, and connection to alumni in the field. There is flexibility in choosing courses, schedules, and extracurricular activities. The campus is, in theory, a brick-and-mortar home base, chock full of opportunities to grow social capital and skills.
Fun prank: make people study for 16 years and give them a ton of debt but no job to pay it off
— University Beyond (@UBeyond) July 6, 2016
Sadly, it’s become clear that many of these “best” opportunities remain not readily available or equally accessible to all students, with only a “self-selecting few” reaping the benefits. More specifically, access to opportunity in and after college is worse for first generation, low-income students, and students of color, who already face myriad barriers, from higher student-loan burdens and decreasing Pell Grant availability to lack of support from higher education communities. We need to help more students access and complete a better quality of higher education; and we need to help them apply it towards success after graduation.
New education for the new economy
How can we ensure this future? If can they embrace existing disruption and shift focus to postgraduate outcomes, universities have an enormous opportunity to build upon their greatest strength: their students.
By working inside universities to address the “yawning gap” between college and career, GenFKD is designing the solution with the major stakeholders. There are promising initiatives already that we can build upon. The Department of Education itself has called for a series of measures to improve accountability and postgraduate success – including programs like EQUIP and tools like the data-rich College Scorecard.
We must find ways to deal with escalating costs that financially limit students or, worse, cause them to drop out. We must develop new curricula that develop and channel that crucial blend of 21st century skills toward a meaningful career after graduating. GenFKD has begun to advance the first already through its on-campus financial literacy and advocacy work. Our new initiative directly addresses the second.
We propose that the key lies not in the traditional model, but in peer-driven collaboration and real-world-relevant problem solving. Our program addresses the millennial desire to be entrepreneurial and gain advanced tech skills, while drawing upon and channeling the power of existing social capital at universities.
GenFKD’s “new education for the new economy” seeks to develop the innovative, agile, and entrepreneurial skills for which our economy calls. It assures students a place in the 21st century landscape by preparing all students not just for a job, but for long-term success after graduation.
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