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A New Era of Higher Ed: We Must Rethink How We Prepare Students for the Job Market

August 28, 2017

Think about what it must have been like to be in the boardroom of Blockbuster Video when Netflix came out. Or in Tower Records’ boardroom when iTunes launched. What kinds of discussions were Apple executives having when Spotify and other music streaming services arrived on the scene and people weren’t downloading music anymore?

During his keynote – 2027: The Decade Ahead for Higher Education – at Campus Technology 2017 last month in Chicago, Ill., Jeffrey Selingo said similarly, we’re entering a new era of higher education.  He calls it the “collaboration era.”

“We’re at the beginning of massive change in higher education that’s going to be coming up over the next couple of years,” said Selingo, the author of There is Life After College, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and education columnist for The Washington Post. “You’re going to be facing many of the same pressures that these other industries faced over the last decade.”

What does the decade ahead look like?

At the beginning of the baby boom in the U.S., we saw a huge surge of students coming to higher education. There was a swell of federal research dollars and an incredible enrollment growth period in the 1970s and 1980s. In the early 1990s – what Selingo calls “the tech era” – we saw the birth of the internet and growth of online education and learning management systems. In the early 2000s, we again saw increased enrollments. Everybody was investing in higher education.

It’s a very different time now.

“The days of huge enrollment growth are slowing down and the changes in the economy mean that we have to educate students in different ways for different jobs. And most of all, at the federal and state level the money that was there in the 60s and 70s no longer exists for higher education,” he said.

The skills needed to keep up in any job are increasing at a faster and faster pace.

IMG_0326A study by Oxford University a couple years ago found that nearly 50 percent of American jobs are threatened by automation and artificial intelligence in the decades ahead.

“Even jobs and careers that once were thought as stable and straightforward – things like accounting – now have the greatest chance of being disrupted,” Selingo said. “What this requires from colleges and universities … is to rethink how we’re preparing the next generation of students for a job market that is expanding and contracting at an alarming pace.”

Selingo spent years researching his book by talking to employers from the most popular brands in Silicon Valley like Facebook, Google and eBay and those from companies like Enterpise Rent-A-Car and Macy’s that do a lot of campus recruiting. He heard over and over again that there is a skills gap in the U.S. for things like the ability to communicate, work in teams and problem solve.

IMG_0328“In many ways, the education system we have today is like the workplace of old where showing up on time, following a list of tasks – that very industrial model – is front and center. College is very task based. We get there in the fall. We have a syllabus that tells us week by week when everything is due. We have clubs and other activities. Then we take a nice break in December and start all over again. But in many ways the modern work world is a mashup of activities with no scheduled end,” he said. “Students graduating today do not have the skills to navigate this future economy.”

We need to focus on continual, lifelong learning

IMG_0329We can’t think of education as something that happens to young people one time in their life, Selingo said. Learning has to be lifelong.

It’s already happening. Where do you turn to when you don’t know how to do something? YouTube.

Selingo said 100 million+ hours of how-to videos were watched on YouTube in the first half of 2015. Particularly, young people are watching. They’re used to this idea of constant learning.



“We carry these things (mobile devices) around in our pockets that tell us whatever we want to know whenever we want to know it, and as a result there’s this whole new learning economy that is growing up around traditional higher education,” he said.

We’ve seen the spread of MOOCs and online providers of education, and the majority of people taking these courses already have bachelor’s degrees.

“They’re looking to fill that huge chasm that opens up between the end of college and the job and those skills sets that we need,” he said.

LinkedIn, for example, has LinkedIn Learning now where people can learn in-demand skills through online courses.

And we see traditional colleges and universities reacting to this, because they want to compete against the likes of these new-age educational programs, he said.

So how should higher education respond?

Since students are stacking their credentials and continually going back to school, higher education institutions need to think of new models to serve these lifelong learners.


A few years ago Stanford University came up with an idea called the Open Loop University, which would allow a student to have access to six years of education anytime throughout his or her life. He or she could, for example, take two years of school and then go work for a company. Later on in life he or she could go back to school for another year, and so on.

Stanford isn’t currently using this model, but Selingo thinks it would be a “game-changer” if schools could figure out how to do this and pay for it.

Selingo said we’re seeing the growth of “nano and micro degrees” from places like Georgia Institute of Technology, which has a popular online master’s degree program for a much lower tuition rate than its on-campus program.

Read New York Times article: An Online Education Breakthrough? A Master’s Degree for a Mere $7,000

According to Richard DeMillo, a Georgia Institute of Technology educator and author, institutions must embrace academic technology, like video for online learning, to keep up with the changing times.

“You don’t change the old order by fighting it. You change it by finding new inventions that make the old way obsolete. The number of institutions devoting resources to becoming better at educating students is going up. There’s a fault line between those institutions with leadership that gets it and those that don’t,” DeMillo said.

Read Higher Education’s Quiet Revolution

In a new Wainhouse Research report, “Technology Impact on Learning Outcomes – 2017,” analysts Alan D. Greenberg and Charles M. DeNault write:

“The rise of online learning, blended learning and massively open online courses in higher education has led to a highly mobile teaching and learning environment. Dedicated distance learning programs continue to be a vital force using technologies as well, and when combined with the concept of online learning, it’s no wonder video and web conferencing, lecture capture, smartphones and online collaborative workspaces might be perceived as having the greatest impact on outcomes.”

Collaboration is Critical

Universities need to collaborate more in this new era of education, Selingo said. That’s historically happened at the state and national levels, but that’s not enough anymore.

“This collaboration is not about what sector you’re in. It’s not about what athletic conference you’re in. It’s more about what problems you are trying to solve,” Selingo said.

The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, for example, is looking at a new admissions system for low income students. American Talent Initiative is a group of universities looking at how to improve the financial aid system.

“What I see in this decade ahead is many more of these efforts,” he said. “We’re going to see students be able to flow between institutions like never before. This new era of higher education is going to be about creating these platforms for lifelong learning among institutions of all kinds and all sizes. We tend to overestimate the speed of change in higher education. We tend to underestimate the depth of change. It’s an exciting and challenging time for those universities … that really want to take advantage of this and survive and thrive in this next era of higher education.”


This column first appeared on Medium here.

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