3 Ways Higher Education Will Need to Adjust to a Post-Crisis Landscape

As unemployment soars, businesses are rapidly evolving. Universities should follow suit.
3 Ways Higher Education Will Need to Adjust to a Post-Crisis Landscape
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Of the 33 million Americans who became unemployed earlier this year, those with graduate degrees got new jobs more easily than those without. Yet advanced degrees are often poorly aligned with industry needs or disregard individual students’ circumstances. In a post-crisis landscape, graduate students can’t afford training irrelevant to their future profession. As unemployment soars, businesses are rapidly evolving. Universities should follow suit.

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There are three clear solutions to adjusting higher education to a post-crisis landscape, and they move education in a new direction: away from old-fashioned academic programs and towards an experience that is industry-focused and student-centric. First, universities should work closely with industry professionals. Second, departments must be student-centric in setting up program options, not “one-size-fits-all.” Finally, they need to collaborate with internal and external institutions to provide rich, cooperative experiences.

Work in tandem with industry professionals

Universities must have close relationships with professionals to provide students with the skills and resources they need to succeed. The IBM Institute for Business Ventures found that 120 million people worldwide will need retraining within three years, to be able to work with automation and AI. Working with professionals shapes programs that are relevant to the workforce’s needs and simultaneously builds students’ professional networks. As universities are forced to contend with providing adapted programs, this becomes ever more critical.

Institutions of higher education should teach what industry needs from students and provide professional relationships. Some already do. At Columbia University, the Center for Technology Management (CTM) maintains close ties with industry professionals. It has a network of C-suite level mentors and coaches, including Allan Hackney, former SVP and CIO at John Hancock Financial Services. They enable graduate students, such as those pursuing an Executive Masters in Technology Management, to align themselves with industry needs. Laura Kudia, a current student mentored by Hackney, said he provided her with “the tools in the toolbox” she needed to begin a new role as chief of staff to the CIO at American Express. 

Industry experts are a core element of the program. They provide students with monthly coaching on their master’s thesis. They also hone students’ presentation skills through oral defenses, in which students present a business plan and a panel of experts provides extensive feedback. By aligning graduate programs with industry needs, students acquire and fine-tune the tools they need to succeed in the professional world.

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Adapt to a diverse student body

Students are not a monolith. Since the 1970s, the number of graduate students has tripled. They bring different backgrounds and goals to their educational experience. Between a third and 40 percent enroll within four years of completing their undergraduate education, while others have spent years or even decades working. Some want to continue their studies in a given field, while others want to use education to enable a career change. Universities need to become a platform designed to provide all students with options, as opposed to only offering products, or specific degrees and certifications.

Schools must provide scope for students to choose options in and beyond standard graduate programs as best fits their needs. For example, senior executives can join the CTM at Columbia to take the best courses for their specific trajectory and connect with the mentors, even if they do not need a full graduate degree program.

Related: Nearly Half of Business Owners Think the Changes They've Made During the Crisis Will Be Permanent (Infographic)

Partner for a collective cooperative experience

Universities, like businesses and individuals, are stronger when they work together. At Columbia, the CTM collaborates with other institutions such as ESADE in Barcelona, whose honor students spend a week with CTM member companies to learn industry trends in the US. We must all collaborate to provide cooperative experiences with other institutions. This provides students with the flexibility to train for roles requiring multiple skill sets. 

By improving our provision as a sector, universities will attract different types of high-quality students whose needs were previously un-met. This is critical. Graduate student numbers are falling, something likely to worsen as the crisis continues to impact international students, who make up 13 percent of American graduate students. Higher education in the U.S. depends on graduate students to balance the books. Adapting to meet the needs of potential students will keep colleges and universities relevant and enable those students to get jobs despite high unemployment levels.

The universities and colleges primed to thrive in the post-crisis world will foster close relationships with industries and focus on their students’ needs and interests. If higher education institutions collaborate, center programs on industry needs through industry relationships and allow graduate students to select their projects to fit their specific goals, higher education will be a catalyst for progress.

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