“In a personalized world where students have agency, we have to let go of our mental model of a linear, conveyor belt model. We need to think about adaptive systems. If you need a picture to hold in your mind, think highways with lots of on and off ramps.”
~ Chris Sturgis, “Does Competency Education Mean the Same Thing for K-12 and Higher Education?”
The on- and off-ramps that connect higher education to the workforce are few and far between. As the economy crawls toward recovery, there are a growing number of students in search of lifelong learning mechanisms to help them finish school or skill-up for the workforce.
This closed highway illuminates one of the core components of a disruptive innovation — something we call non-consumption. A disruptive innovation gains traction by initially offering simpler, more affordable and more convenient products and services to non-consumers, people for whom the alternative is nothing at all.
Who are the non-consumers of higher education? Think about the 53.6 percent of college graduates who are under- or unemployed upon graduation. Consider those struggling to transition within or move up in the workforce. McKinsey analysts now estimate there are more than 924 skillsets needed in the workforce, compared to 178 skillsets needed in 2009. Think about the students seeking to demonstrate they have some of these now-requisite skillsets. These are students who need to skill-up and pay off their student debt, and more college or graduate school is not necessarily a viable option. Indeed, many traditional institutions don’t even offer relevant majors or programs for high-skills jobs that are in demand today. Students who need better and more direct connections to employment opportunities: these are your non-consumers of higher education.
Students, graduates and working adults are witnesses to a new reality in today’s economy and are therefore looking for a different job to be done in our parlance. The premise of jobs to be done is simple: customers don’t just buy products or services; they hire them to do a job. As Harvard Business School’s Theodore Levitt taught, “The customer doesn’t want a quarter-inch drill. He wants a quarter-inch hole!” A single product or service can do multiple jobs depending on who is hiring it. This simple concept highlights how traditional institutions have historically performed numerous jobs for so many different people and therefore might be susceptible to the same kinds of disruptive forces that newspapers encountered, as they were unbundled piece by piece by providers such as Google, blogs, CNN.com, Cars.com, Monster.com, LinkedIn, Craigslist and others.
Yet I was fascinated at a recent innovation conference to listen to a number of small liberal arts college presidents reject the notion that the “buffet model” of higher education might need to change. They insisted that no technology could ever replicate the “lived experience” on a liberal arts campus. This lived experience, by the way, is one of the major factors behind soaring administrative costs and capital expenditures. Nevertheless, they argue that in learning to live with one another, students are teaching and mentoring one another in ways that differentiate this high-quality source of education from anything else around.
This is certainly an elegant (albeit somewhat glorified) way of describing the residential campus experience, but if this is the core value proposition for the small liberal arts experience, then colleges have even more reason to be concerned. That lived experience is actually already being reinvented in cities around the world. We’re witnessing a proliferation of co-located learning experiences in which students are able to meet in person, discuss and solve problems together. Hacker houses, the Minerva Project, Coursera’s MOOC Camps in embassies and consulates around the world, General Assembly, Dev Bootcamp (as well as various other coding bootcamps) and many other alternative learning pathways offer students wonderful opportunities to mentor, collaborate with and learn from one another.
Nevertheless, academics maintain that the liberal arts experience is priceless because it teaches students to learn and think critically for a lifetime. The oft-repeated defense is that students who are equipped with a well-rounded liberal arts education will be able to pivot easily between jobs — no matter the industry — because of their critical thinking and communication skills.
What college presidents and professors (the majority of whom have not spent a great deal of time outside of academia) do not understand is how difficult it is these days to pivot between jobs and especially between different industries. Even those with professional degrees from prestigious institutions struggle to transition between industries, or move from marketing to operations or product management, or change from a corporation to a start-up or vice-versa. Employers are putting an incredible amount of weight on specific, prior work experience and granular skillsets. The harsh reality is that these things really do matter.
Some forward-thinking liberal arts colleges are therefore partnering with Koru, a start-up that offers “career bootcamps” for liberal arts college students. Rising seniors and recent college graduates are embedded for four weeks at companies such as Zulily, Inc. and Recreation Equipment Inc. (REI), learning directly from the employers on how to create presentations and engage in business analytics and design thinking. If students and colleges are paying an extra $3,000 for these services, however, isn’t this evidence that something crucial is missing from the existing curriculum? Shouldn’t immersive work experiences be more fully integrated into the college experience?
The liberal arts aren’t dead or dying, but to say the liberal arts can take you anywhere is not enough. As Scott Carlson explains, “[t]o an inexperienced, directionless 22-year-old, “anywhere” is as good as “nowhere.” Colleges cannot continue to separate the liberal arts from the workforce. Robert F. Lusch and Christopher Wu make a great point when they assert that “[i]n a university ecosystem the network is the strategy.” The problem is, of course, that most schools arbitrarily disconnect the learning from the larger network of the workforce. They think it’s enough to silo an alumni network in an office of career services, but students need more visible on- and off-ramps built directly into their learning experiences. Meaningful internships and co-op experiences can help students identify more clearly how their studies dovetail with vital workforce competencies: how to work in a professional environment, manage projects and people and develop and communicate ideas.
If we believe the liberal arts train students to form the habits and skills that lead to a better society, democracy and citizenry, then we must also acknowledge the student’s job to be done via higher education is, as Lusch and Wu explain, “the student’s ability to translate knowledge into employable knowledge and skills that can be used for earning a living.”
In order for students to become effective citizens, they must be connected to the full ecosystem, which includes the workforce. It’s not an either/or proposition, as Rick Staisloff puts it: “The trap is that we think … we are either pursuing the life of the mind or that we are a beauty school. … We want students to get immersed in a culture. Well, the workplace is a culture.” Connections and pathways need to be forged more clearly for students so they and employers can recognize the true value of their liberal arts educations.
If traditional institutions do not offer more visible pathways to the workforce, we will continue to see a proliferation of alternative learning pathways that do. Whether they’re competencies, nanodegrees, certificates or badges, learning providers working to uplift the notion of vocational training and build more and affordable on- and off-ramps to what is now a linear, insular experience will gain traction with students looking to hire higher education for a new job to be done.
The new non-consumers of higher education are looking for ways in which they can affordably demonstrate that they know how to do and apply their skills for the jobs at hand. For students to translate their skills in immersive and high-stakes experiences outside of the academy … now, that’s priceless.
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