By Bill Hansen, USA Funds President and CEO
Sixty years ago this October, the Soviet Union’s launch of a tiny satellite called Sputnik shocked the United States out of its complacency over the education levels of its citizens. Our nation responded with an array of innovative new policies and practices to enhance Americans’ skill levels — especially in science, math and engineering — and open the doors of higher education to millions of new students.
With economists now reporting that we are nearing “full employment,” and with recent wage gains, our nation again risks becoming complacent about the results it is achieving from its higher education system. Even with these gains, the level of economic angst remains high, fueled in part by the large number of working-age adults who have dropped out of the workforce and concerns about the quality of the new jobs being created.
Despite an uptick in the economy, a persistent misalignment of graduates’ skills and competencies with the needs of the workforce threatens our future prosperity. This misalignment results in many graduates’ having too long a glide path to rewarding careers, and leaves many employers challenged to find qualified candidates to fill the jobs they need to grow their businesses.
To address this challenge, I believe we need to ignite a new spirit of innovation and creativity in higher education within the academy, abetted by employers and policymakers, and tapping well-tested solutions from private enterprise.
I had the opportunity to share the following examples of innovative new approaches with nearly 600 business, civic and education leaders at this week’s luncheon of the Economic Club of Indiana:
Listening to the voice of the consumer in higher education. I believe the experiences that former students had in higher education and the outcomes of those experiences can inform and enhance efforts to improve student success rates. Our partnership with Gallup will share these insights from surveys of 10,000 adults every month.
Helping college-bound students and their parents, as well as working adults, make better postsecondary program choices based on outcomes rather than inputs. Groundbreaking resources such as Indiana’s College Return on Investment Reports and Indiana College Value Index allow students to compare college programs based on their cost and student debt levels, employment rates for and earnings of their graduates, and graduates’ satisfaction with their jobs and lives.
Equipping students and working adults with resources to explore how they can translate their life passions into careers. Resources such as those offered by Roadtrip Nation allow both students and adults to discover their unique paths through education to their life goals. I am especially proud of the recent production The Next Mission, which follows three veterans of military service as they explore with other vets the transition to civilian life.
Building a strong connection between K-12 and postsecondary education. Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis, which will open this fall, is an exciting effort to improve the connection to college, and ultimately to rewarding STEM careers, for inner-city students.
Modernizing the financing of college. Our financial aid programs have successfully promoted near-universal access to higher education. But those programs are less successful in promoting college completion, and our federal student loan program was built for a different era. I suggest that we explore promising alternatives, like income-share agreements, such as Purdue’s Back a Boiler program. Money management and student loan repayment support programs, like those from Student Connections℠, help ensure students have the “fiscal fitness” to complete college and launch their careers without drowning in debt.
Supporting all students, but especially low-income and first-generation students, to persist and complete their studies. These students typically arrive on campus without the college survival skills or support networks that their classmates enjoy. An initiative involving the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Indiana State University, Ivy Tech Community College and Inside Track to provide student success coaches to 21st Century Scholars so far has shown promising results in improving retention rates for these low- and moderate-income students.
Exposing students to the world of work throughout their years in education. Quality internships, apprenticeships and work experiences, such as that offered by Education at Work, help students earn income and tuition assistance to pay college costs, while also equipping them with “soft skills” that they will need in their careers and connecting them to potential employers.
I believe these examples represent the start of a higher education innovation agenda that will produce better outcomes for students and help employers enrich their talent pipelines. I invite you to share and discuss this list with your colleagues, and submit your suggestions for this agenda in the comments section by selecting the comment icon at the upper right of this article.