The University Network

Rebuilding Higher Education To Improve Students’ Career Outcomes

With fall semester quickly approaching, an overarching question is whether colleges and universities, many of which have turned to online teaching models, will be able to give students an education that will prepare and qualify them for secure and fruitful careers.

While COVID-19 has undoubtedly made things worse, the U.S. postsecondary education system has, for years, faced financial and programmatic challenges. Sometimes for reasons beyond their immediate control, institutions have raised tuition prices and, at times, fallen out of sync with the demands of the employment market.  

As a result, even those who do graduate often struggle to find worthwhile employment and are left with thousands of dollars in student loans to pay back. At the same time, employers in some fields have struggled to attract qualified workers.

So, it isn’t enough to focus only on the immediate disruptions of COVID-19. Instead, efforts should be made to revamp the entire post-secondary education system, argue the authors of a new report published by the Committee for Economic Development, a part of the non-partisan, non-profit think tank The Conference Board.

“Policymakers, business leaders, and educators must not only address the pandemic’s near-term disruption, but also transform how we train the future workforce,” Lori Esposito Murray, president of CED, said in a news release. “They must move the nation toward a system of broader, affordable access and improved individual outcomes where business, education providers, the government, and individual students are all able to more fully share in the cooperative enterprise of preparing and supporting the workforce.”

The authors have several suggestions on how policymakers, business leaders and educators can mitigate economic harm caused by the COVID-19 pandemic while also revamping the long-term effectiveness of higher education. 

Increased federal funding

First and foremost, the authors call on the federal government to provide further funding to higher education institutions to continue to help offset the economic adjustment costs imposed by COVID-19. 

“Given the importance of many institutions of higher education as employers, exporters, and contributors to regional economic strength and long-run productivity — as well as the public returns to advanced education — such an investment may be well justified,” the authors wrote. 

They added, however, that policymakers should “think hard” about sending more money to institutions that were “fundamentally weak” before the pandemic hit. 

Instead, the authors suggested allocating aid to improve the quality of education at institutions, such as community colleges, that are best fit to improve the career outcomes of the greatest number of students affordably and effectively. 

Fostering innovation

The authors of the report predict that, in the wake of the pandemic, workers who’ve been laid off, furloughed or had their hours significantly cut will be seeking education opportunities to expand their skill sets. 

But these individuals need an education path that they can afford, that can be completed relatively quickly and that they can trust to prepare them for work that pays well enough for them to support their families. 

“Too few institutions of postsecondary education — whether colleges or nontraditional providers — currently and credibly meet these needs,” the authors wrote. 

So, once again, the authors put pressure on policymakers, business leaders and educators to fill this gap. Notably, they suggested that colleges, universities and other education providers should focus on improving online education options. 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, online education hasn’t received too much good publicity. In fact, 78 percent of college students believe that online learning is not as effective as traditional in-person teaching. 

But, online education does have its benefits, particularly for those with tight schedules and families to support. And, like all things, it can be improved. 

“Even if, on average, online education experiences do not yet live up to their potential for providing high-quality education with flexibilities as to learners’ physical location, speed of progress, and scheduling convenience, much can be learned from the best or most innovative programs,” the authors wrote. 

“Policymakers should capture and incorporate that learning into the education mainstream through rigorous evaluation, regulatory flexibilities and supportive legislation,” they added. “With many broad-access education institutions like community colleges planning for online-only semesters in the fall, advances in the effectiveness of such models should be keenly monitored.”

Increasing transparency and accountability

Increased transparency and accountability — a concept long championed by many in higher education — is once again brought up by the authors of this report. 

“Students and their families need a clear understanding of what they are buying in terms of quality and expected employment outcomes, for what price, and in comparison to other alternatives,” the authors wrote. “They need the types of consumer protections — from misinformation and predatory practices — desired in transactions with similar high stakes in terms of time and future earnings.”

It’s worth noting that some transparency tools do exist. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, for example, lets students compare institutions’ programs, costs, admissions rates, results and more. But, for some institutions, the tool is missing crucial data, particularly on earnings and employment outcomes. 

Increasing collaboration between business and postsecondary institutions

Businesses should play a big role in helping to shape the educational programs administered by postsecondary institutions, the authors suggested. That way, the courses institutions offer will continuously reflect labor market demands in real time. 

“The incentives of businesses and postsecondary program participants are often closely aligned,” the authors wrote. “Just as employers hope that students and trainees complete programs with the relevant, in-demand skills they desire, many students and trainees enter programs with the goal of improving their career options and earnings trajectory.”