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Opinion Universities are not ‘trade schools,’ but they should prepare students for the workforce

Robert Morris University President Christopher B. Howard. (Courtesy of Robert Morris University)

Universities are grappling with the best way to integrate traditional classroom learning and workforce training in the face of changing economic demands. Employers want graduates with work experience and competencies beyond the credential they’ve earned, as much as they want someone with solid communication and writing skills. Meeting all of these demands is a challenge for higher education, but not one that is insurmountable, says Christopher B. Howard. The newly inaugurated president of Robert Morris University, a small private school in Moon Township, Penn., argues that colleges and universities must find a way to produce graduates who are astute members of society and competent members of the labor market. — Danielle Douglas-Gabriel

The world as we know it in higher education ended in 2008, when the financial collapse decimated home values and other investments for millions of Americans, wrecking their plans to finance their children’s education. Eight years on, many colleges and universities struggle to navigate this new landscape, but we still have the chance to be on the right side of history — if we act now by ensuring students graduate with skills relevant for today’s workforce and an education that prepares them for an increasingly complex and unpredictable world.

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Consider this: In a recent survey by the College Savings Foundation, 28 percent of parents of high school students said their children had considered not attending college, up from 17 percent just one year earlier. That’s bad news for higher education and for those students. Not every good-paying job requires a college degree, however, college graduates, including millennials, continue to out-earn their less formally educated peers.

A 2014 Pew Research Center report found that college-educated workers ages 25 to 32 earn a median salary of $45,000, compared to $30,000 for those with a two-year degree. According to the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce, the U.S. economy will grow by 25 million jobs through 2020, and 65 percent will require some form of postsecondary education; 35 percent will require a bachelor’s degree.

The demographics of some regions mean that the demand for workers will be particularly high. I’m the president of Robert Morris University (RMU) near Pittsburgh, and our region will see approximately 290,000 workers retire over the next 10 years, according to a report by the local Allegheny Conference on Community Development. The most high-demand fields, including health care, cyber security, and financial technology, will require many new workers with college degrees.

It’s not exactly in our DNA in higher education to talk about return on investment, but we are going to have to start demonstrating it to parents, students and government officials from both sides of the aisle. In addition, we are going to have to demonstrate what makes each of our institutions distinct from our peers, something that our industry’s cookie-cutter approach to marketing has often failed to do.

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We have some good examples of institutions getting it right. Take Northeastern University in Boston, which delivers two, six-month co-op experiences to students enrolled in its four-year degree program, with a five-year program that gives students the opportunity for three co-ops. This is meaningful work experience that not only will help students ensure they are picking the right career but also give them a competitive edge when they graduate.

Northeastern also is notable as one of eight colleges and universities to participate in the U.S. Department of Education’s Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships initiative. As part of this program, Northeastern is teaming up with General Electric to offer a bachelor’s degree program in advanced manufacturing, as well as advanced certificate and online education programs aimed at adult workers who need to burnish their skills to get high-tech jobs.

That speaks to another way that colleges and universities can find their niche: strategic corporate partnerships and joint education programs that not only boost the job prospects of traditional-age college graduates, but also help older workers who need to complete a degree or update their skill set. The growth in online education at traditional nonprofit colleges and universities like RMU is evidence of this.

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In Pittsburgh, employers, colleges and universities, government agencies and nonprofits are coming together at the Energy Innovation Center, where they will conduct research, education, and job training aimed at boosting western Pennsylvania’s growing energy and advanced manufacturing sectors. Robert Morris will soon join this partnership and offer three undergraduate and graduate certificate programs through our School of Engineering, Mathematics and Science. We are also forming our own strategic corporate partnerships and bolstering our relationships with community colleges to create more affordable paths to degrees in high-demand fields such as cyber security.

Of course, colleges and universities are not trade schools. Our mission is to touch our students’ souls, not just help them find a job, and the best institutions don’t have to choose one or the other: They do both. That Pittsburgh workforce study I mentioned counted among the most sought-after traits for employees communication skills, leadership, and the ability to collaborate. These attributes transcend the skills of today’s hot jobs, and will always form the basis for a complete education.