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Itasca’s killer app could transform higher ed

grad with hire me on mortarboard
REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
The accumulation of credits on a college transcript and a good GPA are no longer reliable predictors of success for employers.

Hidden inside the Itasca Project's latest report is the germ of an idea that could become the killer app that ultimately transforms higher education.

The report, Higher Education Partnerships For Prosperity is most powerful in laying out the case for change.  In the coming decades, as baby boomers retire, there simply will not be enough new workers to power economic growth.  Itasca rightly points out that, “Given demographic trends, Minnesota will need to drive economic gains 
by increasing labor productivity and innovation rather than workforce participation alone. Higher education is central to supplying the skilled talent and innovations that are major drivers of productivity and job creation.”

In a nutshell,  “Minnesota must have an education system capable of winning against global competition."

If that is the challenge, our higher education system is clearly not delivering.  In a national survey of employers  “… 63% reported that many recent college graduates are not well prepared for success in the global economy." So while enrollments are rising employers are not getting the qualities they need in those who graduate. The accumulation of credits on a college transcript and a good GPA are no longer reliable predictors of success for employers.

So what to do?

In classic Minnesota form the response to this challenge according to Itasca needs to be more collaboration between higher ed institutions and employers. The report calls on business and higher education to collaborate to produce grads that meet employer needs, generate research and innovation necessary for economic success, make the system more efficient and graduate more students to fill the void left by retiring baby boomers.

Necessary but not likely sufficient

These are sensible and safe recommendations. They are surely necessary. But they are not likely to be sufficient. Large institutions resist change, and the changes they do make are more often incremental than transformational. They do that most effectively by meeting, talking, planning, forming committees and task forces and issuing more reports while not actually changing. Their internal systems and incentives don’t promote change. Their best intentions need to be reinforced and even spurred by changing demands in their external environment.

Very deep in the report is an idea that if pursued could be truly transformational. Itasca says that it will "… establish benchmark assessments to measure the type and quality of skills students attain from higher education compared to those desired in the market.” This could be the killer app that transforms higher education. 

The idea is simple. Assess and report on the skills and competencies that students possess at graduation for solving problems, working in teams, communicating effectively, etc.  In short, create a skills and competencies transcript. These are skills and competencies that grads will need in order to put what they have learned to work in the real world of 21st century work. These assessments would communicate powerfully what employers want students to know and be able to do in order to get a job and compete globally.

Different goals for students

As a result, completing courses, accumulating credits and getting a good GPA would no longer be enough or even the most important goal for students. Rather their attention would be focused on acquiring the skills and competencies needed for success.  And once they know what it takes they will pursue it with a vengeance. They will push institutions to deliver, and if those institutions cannot they will go elsewhere. By articulating clearly what they require, businesses will turn students into the primary agents of change.  And they will get the change they want.

Itasca’s idea could be transformational.  All it takes is these three things – articulate explicitly what students must know and be able to do to get a job in the 21st century, build the app to assess and report who has what it takes and who doesn’t, then hire those who do. Get that done and we will have a killer higher education system that sustains our prosperity in a global economy.

Peter Hutchinson is a former president of the Bush Foundation, commissioner of finance for Minnesota and superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools. He was the 2006 Independence Party candidate for governor.

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Comments (7)

Elitist solutions

We are plagued with people who have made careers out of highly creative failures in public policy.

Government has used civil service tests as part of their hiring process for a long time. And we use standardized tests for licensing in some professions. But I know of few, if any, private businesses that have adopted this model where it wasn't required by regulation. While businesses rarely use standardized tests to evaluate people to hire, we continue to believe we can use those tests to evaluate the schools preparation of people for those jobs.

Are generalist skills in "solving problems, working in teams, communicating effectively, etc" really universally important to every employer for every job? I don't think so. This is another example of a hand-picked elite who get together in a room and come up with solutions to public problems as they define them. And what they value is a lot more people just like them. Afterall, they are smart, talented and successful. Aren't they the model for the ideal employee?

The problem is that these smart, talented, successful people hold only a narrow portion of the knowledge and wisdom in the world. But they have one other attribute, huge egos. That's why they think their ideas, shared by other smart, talented people like them, are important. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. But this group, outside the constraints of their own businesses, are often not the best judges of which are which.

What we need is better public policy processes to engage more people in solutions based on the wide range of wisdom and experience that different people have. What we don't need is more elites sitting around talking to one another and feeding their own egos. What our schools mostly lack is not intellectual solutions and new ideas. To the contrary they are overwhelmed with them coming from all directions. What they lack are the resources to implement the solutions we already know work.

One quibble

If we adopt the "employer-driven" model Mr. Hutchinson advocates, it will no longer be correct to use the term "higher education." The more accurate term will be "training" or "apprenticeship."

"Killer app" is just a nonsensical term to try to be trendy and with-it (are the kids still saying that these days?).

I completely agree

When I was a college student in the late 1960s, early 1970s, large companies still hired liberal arts graduates and (gasp!) trained them in-house. By the early 1980s, these same companies were hiring only business majors or people with specific technical skills. Students soon got the message. When I was in college, Business Administration was a tiny department with only a few students. By the time I began teaching at my alma mater as a part-time instructor ten years later, the requirements of the Business Department, now the largest on campus, were distorting the entire general education program.

Increasingly, we have a nation full of college graduates whose major was a training program for a specific job but who never open a book, don't know world or even American history, geography, or politics; can't write complex sentences, have never taken a course in which there are no cut-and-dried right answers, and worst of all, don't think that any of these things are important.

My message to the Itasca Group: Look for broadly educated, flexible, creative people and train 'em yourselves.

Supply chain management

Large companies seek to ensure a reliable and cost-efficient supply chain for their component parts. We hear that the labor supply chain is broken. It seems to me that the most efficient solution to the business labor supply chain problem would be for business to move up their involvement in the supply chain.

Recruit students out of high school and contract with them to gain the skills that they company needs. Develop some kind of cost-sharing approach - scholarships, part-time employment, loans, etc. with the students to develop the skills that the business needs. The business could then decide how much that they want to invest in any particular worker based on their potential and fit with the company. Loans could be forgiven based on employment time or as bonuses for excellent work. The state or feds could get involved with tax credits for training dollars invested and job hiring, especially for low-income kids. Companies could do a lot of trying before buying and find the employees right for them.

The business needs to decide whether they need someone with an MBA or do they just need someone who knows everything about Excel? For students to invest 2, 4 or 6 years of college and have the resulting debt now incurred by so many, with so little guaranteed benefit is a tough option for them to pursue.

Colleges that could provide flexible certifications and degrees would be in the catbird seat to work directly with businesses and students on this approach - essentially an open studies degree in manufacturing, computer networks, health care, etc.

Lipstick on an old pig

This idea that corporate models should be imported into civic programs like education is neither new nor innovative. Worse, where it's been adopted it's been a disaster that has multiplied administrative costs four fold, destroyed basic relationships, externalized missions, and turned clearly defined missions into abstract mumbo-jumbo. We sit around and pretend that no one anywhere has ever run a government or an effective education system because that's what we have to do in order to take these guys seriously. If we stop pretending for two seconds we quickly realize that these guys have nothing to offer and their "innovations" are largely unneeded.

On a basic level the idea will fail

Of course on a basic level the Itasca idea that businesses will clearly identify what they need from the educational system and communicate it somehow is clearly doomed anyways. US business's and business executives are simply incapable of producing this information. What they'll do is hire consultants who will waste huge amounts of time and money supposedly collecting data and recommending agendas. This product will then go to meetings where facilitators will parse it out and recommend more study... and that's as far as it will go. By the time anyone actually produces employee profiles the question will be moot.

The fact that employers can't tell you right now what they need from employees tells you more about our business sector than it does the education system. And the idea that the education system be designed around some kind of employer profile simply takes absurdity to a whole new level.

And by the way, let's think about this idea that an education system is all about turning out cogs for corporate machines; think about where you're going with that. You know what happens to obsolete cogs don't you? Do you really want to produce specialized parts that become obsolete according to the dictates of trendy corporate mentalities? Or do you want educated and intelligent people who can adopt to changing work environments? Duh. Should we expect education systems that produce widgets that fit into transitory corporate demands, or should we expect corporations that know how to hire and train educated people to meet their demands?

Simple logistic dictate that it's impossible to pre-mold graduates according to corporate blueprints given the diversity and number of corporations and businesses. Better to graduate students that are capable of being molded on the job. This Itasca idea is just typical executive mentality- how can make training out employees someone else's problem?

Personal "outcomes transcript" for each student

Peter Hutchinson, following the recommendations of the Itasca report, states that one of needed steps is to "build the app to assess and report..." This has already been done. The achievement belongs to a Minnesota company, eLumen Collaborative. Its digital structure imposes no content; the faculty of a college or university can choose to define the expected learning outcomes for its graduates. Whatever outcomes are chosen will be transparent: if the faculty choose to listen to the business community, that will be obvious; if they choose not to, that too will be obvious. Students then will be able to choose which college or university to attend, and in which program to enroll, based on, among other things, the capacity of the institution to produce a personal "outcomes transcript" for each student, and (as a separate question) the specific student capacities they choose to attend to.