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Rethinking how we evaluate colleges

Rowers paddle along the Charles River past the

Rowers paddle along the Charles River past the Harvard College campus in Cambridge, Mass., on March 7, 2017. Credit: AP / Charles Krupa

Many parents and high school students rely on U.S. News & World Report’s Best College Rankings when evaluating college options. For years, the publication has ranked colleges and universities based on SAT scores, acceptance rates, alumni giving and counselor surveys.

With the recent release of this year’s rankings, U.S. News also included median starting salaries for graduates as part of their calculation. Yet, while this is a great first step, it still doesn’t paint a complete picture of how well colleges are preparing their students for today’s workforce.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 6.1 million jobs are going unfilled due to the lack of qualified workers. It’s time to start evaluating colleges on additional criteria like degree or credential completion, and job placement and advancement.

Business leaders are understandably worried about the inability to find the employees they need. In a global survey of CEOs, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) reported that 73 percent see the lack of talent as a “key concern” and a barrier to future growth. In a Randstad Sourceright survey of HR executives, 80 percent said the skills shortfall is going to effect negatively their companies in the next 12 months.

This disconnect between the skills businesses need and what K-12 and post-secondary institutions are teaching is unsustainable. We must bridge the divide between educational providers and employers so that students are armed with the skills they need to perform today’s jobs.

Working together, educators and businesses can address the shortcomings in the current system: an outdated teaching method that does not produce the skills companies need and the poor return on investment for students who spend more money on a college degree than it’s worth in the job market.

A 2015 Georgetown University study reveals our nation’s colleges, universities, governments and corporations are spending a combined $1.1 trillion a year on post-secondary education. Nearly 60 percent of that sum goes to formal, traditional education; however, employers are spending more than $400 billion a year for on-the-job training to provide necessary skills that were not gained at colleges and universities. Essentially business must replicate workforce training dollar-for-dollar. As a country, we’re paying double.

So, how do we begin to address this disconnect? By forging partnerships between forward-looking companies and learning institutions at new and unprecedented levels.

Apprenticeship programs and work-integrated learning can reform both higher education and corporate-workforce training. In this emerging model, students learn on the job and study career-relevant coursework. They are paid entry-level wages and immediately begin learning new skills that, over time, will help them earn greater responsibilities and higher pay.

Some organizations have already begun to move in this direction. The American food and agribusiness company J.R. Simplot Co. in Boise, Idaho, has established a successful internship and outreach program that provides young people the professional development needed to become desirable hires. As a result, Simplot is better able to fill open positions, increase productivity and decrease turnover.

Other companies are partnering with universities to ensure their employees have the right skills and opportunities for advancement. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles partnered with Strayer University to provide no-cost degrees to dealership employees and their families. Since enrollment, participating dealers have enjoyed 40 percent lower turnover.

Through these and other innovative programs, educational institutions have a responsibility to offer students a return on their time and financial investment. These students have been promised a better life and a rewarding career, but because most higher education programs do not align with employers’ specific needs, many students end up with excessive loan debt and low income — even as businesses struggle to fill many high-paying positions.

Today’s gap between the supply and demand of well-trained workers is unsustainable for employers, workers and our nation. We cannot continue applying an antiquated educational model ― college rankings included ― to a new economic reality. We need a fundamental overhaul of America’s education-to-workforce pipeline, and educators and employers must take the lead by working together to rebuild it.

Karl McDonnell is CEO of Strayer Education, and Tim Taylor, executive director of America Succeeds, a national network of non-partisan business organizations dedicated to improving educational outcomes for all students. They wrote this for