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Itasca’s killer app could transform higher ed

By articulating clearly what they require, businesses will turn students into the primary agents of change.

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

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.

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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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