Obtaining higher education – specifically a degree – has long been considered the path to obtaining one’s desired career. What we’ve learned though in the last decade especially, is that the job market is flooded with workers with degrees, and yet businesses are telling higher ed institutions that their students aren’t prepared with necessary skills for entry level positions. So a chasm exists that we need to bridge, and the best way to do so is for colleges and universities to partner with businesses and industries to determine the required entry, mid- and senior-level skills necessary to obtain, advance and succeed in a given career field.

What changes need to be made in higher education to ensure that students are getting the best education for their career goals?

To begin with, colleges and universities need to revisit their definition of a student. The average age of a student in America is now 26.4 years old, and that data alone suggests that students today need flexibility in order to accommodate home responsibilities, work life, and obtaining an education. Therefore, higher education should be shifting its resources to account for students who are looking to gain specific skills or knowledge blocks but who have limited schedules. Institutions should also be offering education in smaller units to support specific career attainment and advancement goals. Finally, shifting resources to staff career centers with additional counselors who can help students align courses to the necessary career skills will help them find the most cost and time effective education pathway possible.

Is technology enabling higher education and enabling a more sophisticated, career-minded education?

Technology has made higher education more accessible to a global community but with it comes a hefty price tag. Education technology has become so expensive that institutions have had to choose between paying for software to manage their student academic records or investing that money in the education programs they offer. The best education for career-minded students is to provide real-time job market data with the necessary skills and knowledge attainment. That is, guide students to understand how their interests parlay into jobs and careers, but with an understanding of what it takes to advance and succeed in that field (based upon labor statistics). Then, offer micro-credentials to assist students. While there is still a need for the traditional 120-126 credit hour program to earn a degree, career-minded students would be much better served through micro-credentialing. This allows students to get the most needed information on a subject in a shorter amount of time. It allows for the greatest amount of flexibility and when combined with other micro-credentials it becomes a personalized portfolio that can be applied to a student’s career goals.

Lifelong learning — How does that play a role in a career-minded education?

While lifelong learning has played a small part in higher education for years, the development of technology and globalization has really pushed it to be one of the main drivers institutions should be looking to capitalize on. Ben Shank, former CEO of The American Higher Education Alliance and current CEO at Tower Education Technologies views digital disruption differently when it comes to large vs. smaller institutions: “Larger, well known institutions, will likely continue with the on-campus model being their main generator of revenue. They also tend to offer some virtual experiences, but that has only amounted to a small portion of their income. Small-to-mid sized institutions, on the other hand, have a major decision to make. These colleges and universities could continue to struggle and may even be forced to close if they choose to continue to fully rely on on-campus students for their revenue.” Think of lifelong learning as Lego blocks, each new subject learned is another block to build your career on. It can be shaped to look like whatever the student wants. Lifelong learning is an opportunity for higher education to connect with the global business community and offer timely courses that prepare students to meet the current needs of our world. As needs shift so can the education to ensure a steady source of quality employees.

Things potential students should look for when it comes to selecting the right higher education program

Flexibility – Today’s student population is not composed solely of high school graduates. Many students are parents and working adults and each of them has their own reason for gaining an education. No matter where in the world they’re located, students need to identify a program that fits within their already hectic schedules.

Affordability – Over the past decade tuition costs have skyrocketed forcing students to take on debt. Today’s constituents are very cost-conscious and seek programs that directly support their education, life, and career goals.

Career Support – Students have not always been aware of what career they could pursue after earning a degree. As a result, many students have landed jobs earning salaries lower than the amount of their student debt. To put an end to this fiscal deficiency, institutions need to have a career support staff in place to help students make the most of their education.

Transferability – Students should look for programs that are easily transferable. They should ask themselves, “how does this transfer into my career objective overall?” They also need to consider approaching their education from different angles by considering, “should I build knowledge through micro-credentialing from multiple programs and institutions, or would one program fit my desired outcome?”

Where is higher education now in general and where it is headed with respect to best practices with a career-minded bent?

Higher Education, while facing a huge challenge, has an opportunity to adapt to meet the needs of today’s career-minded student. With advancements in technology and a more cost-conscious student, institutions would be wise to recognize that adapting their education offerings to focus on upskilling and re-skilling could result in a new revenue stream that could very well determine if it remains viable or is forced to close. There will always be a demand for the traditional on-campus experience, but more and more students are looking for a cost-effective and less time-consuming way to learn what is needed for a particular career path.