One of my last projects before joining College for America at Southern New Hampshire University involved analyzing the tech startups that are flourishing in Brooklyn, New York. The key questions I looked to answer were what kind of employees were these companies looking for, and what kind of education and experience did they need?
The logical assumption would have been that these companies were turning to local colleges and universities for great employees. Instead, when asking where they were finding their new talent, the nearly unanimous answer I received: Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). As in the city of Rochester, New York that is more than a subway ride away from Brooklyn.
The obvious question followed. Why there? It is not that there aren't enough institutions of higher learning in the 333 miles between the two cities.
I learned that firms were turning to RIT because its students had both the academic skills and hands-on experience needed in the startup workplace. At least from the perspective of the companies, no other school seemed to be preparing their students nearly as well.
This answer raised a bigger question: Why is it that the many institutions of higher learning between Brooklyn and Rochester were not perceived by these innovative companies to be preparing their students in a way that made them desirable to new employers?
Obviously my rhetorical question is not intended to dismiss centuries of higher learning or the quality of New York's esteemed higher education institutions. Indeed, there are reams of surveys that say a college education is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in income over a graduate's lifetime. But increasingly, employers are expressing frustration that the college students who come to them might be well educated but don't have the skills and experience needed to be productive, ranging from the technical knowhow to run today's sophisticated machinery to the collaborative problem solving and communication skills demanded of today's management.
But preparing students for the workplace has never been the purpose of America's higher education providers, especially those that consider themselves research institutions. It is perhaps then not such a surprise that universities designed to produce an "educated" adult who is grounded in culture and trained to think are not simultaneously producing a "work-ready" adult. Blaming a system for not delivering experience when it was never designed to do that, and frankly doesn't know how, is self-defeating.
The reality today is that sustaining that dichotomy--developing either worldly-educated or work-ready adults is neither what employers are looking for nor is it academically sustainable. RIT offers one possible way out--an educational model that makes the employer-school relationship a part of that mind-shaping process. But it is hardly the only one. For example, College for America--my employer--offers another method, based on competency-based education. And there are others beside.
No matter the model, this cannot happen without employers. And certainly won't happen if companies just wait for educators to come calling. Higher education offers a resource companies have to decide is strategically worth working with. It will not be easy, but the Brooklyn-RIT experience shows that if companies pay more than lip service to the idea of college-to-work education, there is a huge return on their investment waiting.
Equally, conventional higher education needs to be willing to embrace this new purpose, understanding that, by eschewing experience in the name of pure intellectual learning, colleges are requiring someone else to teach workforce readiness. The inevitable result will be the draining of institution-sustaining enrollments.
So what is the point of education? It can no longer be an either/or question--learning versus experience. The reality is we need both to ensure we have the workforce we need for the next century and the citizens ready to make the most of it.