With rising unemployment, companies develop rapidly. Universities should follow suit.
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Of the 33 million Americans who became unemployed earlier this year, those with college degrees found new jobs more easily than those without. However, advanced degrees are often poorly tailored to the needs of the industry or ignore the circumstances of individual students. In a post-crisis landscape, doctoral students cannot afford any training that is irrelevant to their future profession. With rising unemployment, companies develop rapidly. Universities should follow suit.
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There are three clear solutions to adapting higher education to a post-crisis landscape, and they are moving education in a new direction: away from old-fashioned academic programs and towards an industry and student-centered experience. First, universities should work closely with industry professionals. Second, when setting up program options, departments need to be student-centered, not "one size fits all". Finally, they must work with internal and external institutions to deliver rich, collaborative experiences.
Work with industry professionals
Universities must maintain close relationships with professionals in order to provide students with the skills and resources they need to be successful. The IBM Institute for Business Ventures found that 120 million people worldwide must be retrained within three years to work with automation and AI. Working with professionals designs programs that are relevant to the needs of the workforce while building student professional networks. As universities are forced to grapple with the provision of customized programs, this is becoming more and more critical.
Colleges should teach what industry needs from students and cultivate professional relationships. Some do. At Columbia University, the Center for Technology Management (CTM) maintains close relationships with industry professionals. It has a network of mentors and coaches at the C-suite level, including Allan Hackney, former SVP and CIO at John Hancock Financial Services. They enable doctoral students, for example an Executive Master's in technology management, to align themselves with the needs of the industry. Laura Kudia, a current undergraduate Hackney mentored, said he provided her with "the tools in the toolbox" that she needed to take on a new role as chief of staff of the CIO at American Express.
Industry experts are a central element of the program. They offer students monthly coaching for their master’s thesis. They also improve students' presentation skills through oral defenses, where students come up with a business plan and an expert group provides extensive feedback. By aligning graduate programs with industry needs, students acquire and optimize the tools they need to be successful in the professional world.
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Adapting to a diverse student body
Students are not a monolith. The number of PhD students has tripled since the 1970s. They bring different backgrounds and goals to their educational experience. Between a third and 40 percent enroll within four years of completing their basic training, while others have worked for years or even decades. Some would like to pursue their studies in a specific area while others would like to use education to facilitate a career change. Universities need to become a platform that offers options to all students rather than just products or specific degrees and certifications.
Schools must allow students to choose options within and outside of the standard graduate programs that best suit their needs. For example, executives can join the Columbia Community Brand to take the best courses for their specific trajectory and connect with mentors even if they don't need a full graduate school.
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Partner for a collective cooperative experience
Universities, like companies and individuals, are stronger when they work together. In Columbia, the community brand works with other institutions such as ESADE in Barcelona, whose honorary students spend a week with CTM member companies to learn about industry trends in the USA. We must all work together to have cooperative experiences with other institutions. This gives students the flexibility to train roles that require multiple skills.
By improving our offering as a sector, universities will attract different types of highly skilled students whose needs were not previously met. This is critical. Graduate numbers are falling, which is likely to get worse as the crisis continues to affect international students, who make up 13 percent of American graduate students. Higher education in the US relies on graduate students to balance the books. By adapting to the needs of potential students, colleges and universities remain relevant and these students can find a job despite high unemployment.
Universities and colleges prepared to thrive in the post-crisis world will have close relationships with industry and focus on the needs and interests of their students. When higher education institutions work together, tailoring programs to industry needs through industry relationships, and allowing graduate students to choose their projects to match their specific goals, higher education will be a catalyst for progress.
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