The Disconnect Between Higher Education and Workforce Demands

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a report examining the lives of young Americans in the wake of the Great Recession.  Unsurprisingly, 41 percent of those interviewed felt that young people, ages 18-24, face greater challenges weathering the economic storm than their older counterparts.

That said, perhaps the most astonishing statistic from the report is one that came directly from college graduates.  Over 1/3 of recent graduates felt they did not receive the training or skills needed to successfully transition into the workplace.  As someone who has, for better or worse, spent the past ten years of my life both collecting degrees and working within university bureaucracies, I find this number disturbing but unsurprising for two key reasons.

First, remediation in higher education is on the rise.  The number of first-time students placing into remedial courses in core subjects such as reading, writing, and mathematics has steadily increased over the past two decades. Ask anyone who has taught a course or worked as an academic advisor and chances are you will be inundated with anecdotes supporting this point.  Don’t trust the anecdotes?  In 2008, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 36.2 percent of students, up from 34.7 percent in 2004, have enrolled in remedial courses upon entering college.

Moreover, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), nearly two-thirds of American fourth and eighth graders lack proficency in key subjects including reading and math.  These two statistics not only paint a fairly bleak picture of k-12 education in the U.S., but also give weight to the argument that many students are at an inherent disadvantage upon entering college.

The only logical assumption one can make, thus far, is that there is something inherently wrong with this country’s k-12 system.  That being said, let’s put aside the NAEP figures and suppose the remediation figures are not an indictment of the state of American schools, but represent the natural range of student skill levels associated with record enrollment.  Doing so leads me to my second point – there is a distinct disconnect between the college education students receive and the needs of employers.

An article published in the Online Journal of Workforce Education and Development last summer suggested 68.4 percent of employers believe that job training begins in the classroom.  Employers, for years, have maintained that the 21st century workforce must have, and be able to use, applied skills such as translating academic writing into everyday vernacular and computer literacy.  Many have even suggested partnerships between universities and businesses.

While this notion of corporative curriculum development is certainly not new, we see few schools taking local businesses up on their offer.  Rather, they have opted to continue teaching a curriculum that emphasizes the abstract rather than the practical.

Regardless of who shoulders the blame for this dilemma, there are a couple of lessons we can learn.  First, academic reform MUST begin with k-12 education.  Students forced to take remedial courses right off the bat are at a greater disadvantage than their peers who are able to dive head first into level appropriate courses.  As a result, they oftentimes spend the rest of their college career playing academic catch-up.  Those interested in majors that often translate into good jobs, such as nursing, engineering, and business, face delayed graduation and departmental rejection as they attempt to overcome the hurdles placed in front of them as a result of institutional negligence.

Second, colleges and universities throughout the country must step out of their comfort zone and begin to develop a curriculum in line with today’s economic realities.  While I am a firm believer that college is an environment that should challenge students to think critically, engage in debate, and ponder the philosophical questions that have plagued man for centuries, this must be paired with the cultivation of the real world skills employers are searching for.

– Mylinda McDaniel

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