The fallout of the pandemic and recent economic shakeups has recently reminded graduating high schoolers that the pathway to a high-wage job doesn’t necessarily require a college degree. However, these experts believe higher education is at an inflection point to evolve past its focus on academia and prioritize equipping its students with career skills and that the best way to get there is by partnering with relevant businesses and employers.
College enrollment rates have been on a precipitous decline, dropping more than 7% in the past five years. The pandemic gave students the chance to evaluate the importance of a college degree and many of them have decided to turn their backs on it, pursuing workforce opportunities straight out of high school. Their hunch on the value of a college degree might be correct: A recent survey found that two-thirds of companies were finding talent shortages and receiving applicants with a lack of specific skill sets.
The decline in enrollment may be due to a declining faith in college degrees translating to student skill sets. The Purpose of Education Index by Populace Insights found that the American public doesn’t believe a K12 education should highly prioritize preparing students for a college degree as they once did: In 2019, the survey found preparing students for a college degree as the 10th-highest priority; in 2021, it ranked 47th. Practical, tangible skills ranked number one.
For high schoolers who are still eager to enroll in college, both parents and students are more motivated to apply for a college or university whose programs best align with students’ career interests, not the academic reputation of the school.
“There’s a certain credibility that comes from a degree that’s associated with a major research institution. That’s not enough,” says Dr. Marc Austin, Dean for Augusta University Online. “Oftentimes more valuable for a student is to know that there is a job or advancement directly related to the degree they’re working on.”
Augusta Online’s available programs for students represent a quality-over-quantity approach, tailoring the curriculum around input from industry professionals. For example, Austin spent the first day on the job with leaders from Fort Gordon. The local military base’s Cyber Center of Excellence poises itself to protect the nation’s national interests through cyber security, and Austin was curious about what the “cyber warriors” of the future need to be equipped for the job. These conversations helped iron out Augusta Online’s Master of Science in Information Security Management. Augusta Online only offers two other Master programs, but they were built out with detailed intention, according to Austin, examining labor market needs at the state and regional level, to maximize a student’s return on investment.
Austin’s positive experience with older cohorts of students has helped him realize “the untapped opportunity” for all universities to work collaboratively with employers to design programs and curricula that support economic growth.
“We have to build students’ practical, relevant experiences that inform the theoretical and academic work we do so that they have both rigor and practice. That’s the most desired combination of benefits, ” says Austin. “The only way we get there is by understanding what those skills are that employers are looking for.”
Dakota State University is another school that is tightly partnered with cybersecurity employers at the federal, state and local levels to tailor a curriculum that focuses on building skills, not just a students’ theoretical lens. Students and faculty collaborate with employers, such as the NSA, on real problems affecting them, and student solutions have real-world implications.
Similarly, Villanova University’s close connections with local employers have helped keep a steady stream of entry-level positions available for newly graduated students, which is why more than 70% of Villanova’s 2022 graduates gained employment at an average salary of $71,363, according to the school’s undergraduate career outcomes website.
“The last thing I want to do is educate someone through a degree and not have them find a job or advancement on the other side,” says Austin, “It’s a low return impact on the student. It’s a low return impact on the university, and obviously for the employer.”