Episode 126: Colleges That Are Successful at Delivering Needed Career Skills

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Today’s episode of our Colleges in the Spotlight series takes what our regular listeners will recognize as a surprising turn. You all may recall the many times we have championed the liberal arts as a great way for undergraduates to spend at least two–if not four–years. We have quoted many dignitaries from college presidents to elected Congressional leaders about the merits of liberal arts study. Let me be the first to say that I am not backing down on that. On the other hand, let me also offer a somewhat alternative view and to let you know what some colleges are doing about it.

And, of course, remember to go to amazon.com and get a copy of our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. It’s a book for your teenager to use this summer. You can go back and listen to Episodes 119 and 120 to find out what the book is all about.

1. The Problem

We would like to thank John Hanc for his June 7 New York Times article, which profiled a number of colleges doing interesting work on the problem of college graduates who do not have the job skills that employers need, perhaps because their colleges did not have programs that focused sufficiently on those skills. The article quotes Gary Burtless, an economist with the Brookings Institution, as saying, on the other hand, that some higher education institutions “have their ear to the ground, they’re listening to local employers and paying attention to what they need.” Mr. Hanc’s article puts the spotlight on seven institutions and their innovative programs for closing the “skill gap,” and you should take a look at all seven. By the way, some programs are part of four-year undergraduate programs, some are part of two-year community college programs, and some are certificate programs that are not part of a two-year or four-year degree–something for everyone. But, for now, let’s put our spotlight on a handful of those institutions and programs.

2. The Innovative Programs

Case Western Reserve University. Let’s start with Case Western Reserve University, a well-respected private research university in Cleveland, Ohio. Case Western enrolls almost 12,000 students, with slightly more graduate and professional students than undergraduate students. According to the article, Case Western offers 15-credit and 18-credit minors that are “responsive to changing industries and emerging technologies” and that could be “one of the more effective strategies for preparing students to enter high-demand fields” (quoted from the article).

One of these minors is in applied data science. For those of you who don’t know what that is, applied data science includes skills in data management, distributed computing, informatics, and statistical analytics. (I hope that helped!) But here is some more information about the applied data science minor: 

[This] Case minor has attracted students from majors like arts and sciences, engineering, business and health care. Graduates enter the market with an important and salable credential. A 2016 poll conducted by Gallup for the Business-Higher Education Forum found that 69 percent of employers expected that, by 2021, candidates with data science skills would get preference for jobs in their organizations.

While that 69 percent figure might be frightening to some of us, it wasn’t frightening to Case Western, which appears to have responded effectively in order to close that skill gap for at least some of its graduates. My guess is that other minors Case Western offers close other skill gaps with equal success. You might want to go find out if your teenager is interested in a good private university in the Midwest.

California Institute of Technology. Let’s turn to a program operated by the highly respected California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in cooperation with Base 11, a nonprofit that describes itself this way on its own website: “We connect employers, academic institutions, and entrepreneurial opportunities with high-potential, low-resource students who have shown interest and talent but lack the access and resources needed to realize their greatest potential.” (quoted from the website)

In this joint program, community college students from across California “are mentored by Caltech graduate students through on-campus summer internships and semester-long programs.” (quoted from the article) As you might guess from the fact that the program is at Caltech, the focus of the program is on STEM fields and especially on aerospace engineering, which is a major field of employment in California. The results have been good.

Interestingly, Base 11 runs similar programs in cooperation with the University of Southern California’s School of Engineering and with the University of California, Irvine (loyal listeners will remember that we spoke at length about UC Irvine and its Hispanic Serving Institution designation back in Episode 124). So kudos to you, Base 11, and to you again, UC Irvine.

Lake Area Technical Institute. Awarded the Aspen Institute’s 2017 Prize for Community College Excellence, Lake Area Technical Institute (Watertown, SD) has gotten some pretty impressive results: a graduation rate that is twice the community college national average and a 99 percent job placement rate. How did that happen?

Michael Cartney, president of Lake Area Technical Institute, is quoted as saying this in testimony to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee: “Tightly knit student cohorts in clearly defined graduation paths with close connections to their industry-trained instructors has been a formula for success.” (quoted in the article)

The article goes on to say that the Lake Area Technical Institute “holds its 2,400 students accountable, as if they were in a job setting” (quoted from the article). I would actually like to know more specifics about how that is done. It strikes me as a great idea, but I would be interested in the details.

And finally, there are “close ties with local and regional industry (every major, for example, has an advisory board of industry professionals).” (quoted from the article) Having industry-based advisory boards is a proud tradition typical of many high school career and technical programs as well as community college technical programs. When it works well, it makes a lot of sense. It evidently is working well at Lake Area Technical Institute.

If you believe that the purpose of college is to get a job–as many people do believe these days–then this college profile has to be judged as impressive.

Miami Dade College. Now let me say a word about Miami Dade College (MDC), which is an enormous public community college with seven campuses in and near Miami, Florida. MDC enrolls more than 92,000 credit students, who study for certificates, for associate’s degrees in more than 150 majors, and even for bachelor’s degrees in more than 20 majors. About 70 percent of its students are Hispanic.

According to the article, MDC has an innovative new degree in data analytics, which is described this way:

The program begins with a certificate in business intelligence, progresses to an associate in science in business intelligence, and culminates in a bachelor of science in data analytics.

The Labor Department defines this “stackable” approach as a sequence of credentials that can be accumulated to build up students’ qualifications and help them move along a career path.

“This provides flexibility for those students who might need to be in the work force while in school,” said Karen Elzey, vice president of the Business-Higher Education Forum, which was a partner in starting the program. (quoted from the article)

In my own experience working with community colleges, this is the kind of program that community colleges do really well. It is also the kind of program that understands that the average age of MDC credit students is 25, with about one-third of MDC credit students 26 or older. Adult students might understandably “need to be in the work force while in school,” just as Ms. Elzey said.

Nevertheless, about one-third of MDC credit students are traditional-aged college students from 18 to 20. So, students do go directly from high school. And so could your teenager, especially if you live in southern Florida.

Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. Though I am a big fan of Ben Franklin, here is an institution that I had never heard of. Its beginnings are actually in Franklin’s 1790 will, in which he left Boston an endowment for the training of apprentices (that is, in those times, young men under 25). “I believe good apprentices are likely to make good citizens,” Franklin is quoted as writing in his will.

Located in Boston’s South End, Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology “offers two- and four-year degrees in high-demand fields like health information technology, computer technology and automotive technology (in the planning stages: a program in driverless-car technology).” (quoted from the article) Its graduates seem to be getting jobs. I guess Franklin would say today that college graduates who can get good jobs quickly are likely to make good citizens. Maybe this is one more good idea that Ben Franklin had more than 225 years ago.

3. What Does This Mean for You?

What does all this mean for you? It means that the degree to which a college can claim to bridge the career-related skills gap that employers are finding in college graduates is one more thing to consider when looking at colleges for your teenager. This is especially true if you are looking at community colleges and associate’s degrees as the best choice for your teenager immediately after high school.

If you are a regular listener, you know that we have long been concerned about the low graduation rates and low transfer rates that many community colleges post. That worry doesn’t end here. But, a community college that can show you programs that lead to good careers–along with a high percentage of students who graduate and get jobs in those fields–could be worth a serious look.

4. Happy Fourth of July!

So, in honor of the Fourth of July holiday, we are going to take a break next Thursday. We hope you have a wonderful celebration over the next five or so days. And we hope that you and your high schooler at home come back ready to work because senior year is fast approaching.

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