From education to employment

Re-purposing Higher Education for the future

There has been a lot of hand wringing and consternation about higher education and whether it needs to change in the future. The debate rages in the United States as it does in Britain — and for good reason. Educational costs are skyrocketing, public finance continues to wane, employers bemoan the paucity of skilled workers in critical vocational and technical fields, and both in the United States and the United Kingdom, there exists an undercurrent of growing anxiety among young people and their parents about the accessibility of higher education and the relationship between higher education and achieving successful employment.

With the start of the new school year, a new generation of young people are entering our respective higher education systems presumably poised to enter the labor market in three or four years. Will they be successful? How much student debt will they incur before they’re through? But more to the point -were their choices about which institutions to attend fully informed by career and earnings trends and employer needs?

Both of our nations have witnessed the increasing preference for the four-year or academic degree at the expense of the vocational or technical degree or certificate. Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently noted the growing dominance of expensive four-year degrees, but cautions: “Yet America isn’t educating the technicians we need. As our aspirations increasingly focus on four-year college degrees, we’ve allowed vocational and technical education to be downgraded and denigrated.”

A recent report, Breaking the Mold, by the Association of Colleges, strikes a similar chord: “The 1990s saw a further decline in the provision of higher technical and vocational education. Polytechnics became universities, colleges lost ground amid funding changes and students who might previously have followed a vocational path progressed into academic degrees featuring an expensive full-time ‘student experience’.”

It seems more than appropriate then to join the growing chorus about the future of higher education as we chart our economic goals in the 21st century. I, like Secretary Reich and my colleagues at the AoC, agree wholeheartedly that we must rebalance the academic with the technical and vocational sides of higher education. Each is important—but never at the expense of the other. Our diverse economies require that we prepare young people through both pathways.

Colleges of Further Education in the UK and community and technical colleges in the States pay special attention to economic and labor force trends and seek to respond to the best of their ability by aligning programs and degrees to such trends. But our institutions struggle against the recurrent forces that continue to propel young people to four-year colleges. Worse, we have de-valued vocational and technical education while demand for such preparation is in demand from employers.

We must rebalance economic and labor force needs and our higher education systems. Failing to do so portends a growing mismatching of resources, outcomes, and aspirations of our young people seeking gainful employment. This is a price we can’t afford to pay. In a future installment, I will discuss some ways by which we as higher education and workforce training leaders can begin to attain balance.

J. Noah Brown is the president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees and the author of First in the World: Community Colleges and America’s Future. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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