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Karen Hitchcock: Degree Programs in the U.S. - Do They Miss the Mark?

Over the last several months, concerns regarding our nation’s system of higher education have continued to escalate…concerns regarding cost, quality, rigor and, yes, even long-term value.  And, as we all know, the employment opportunities for recent graduates of our institutions of higher education, particularly those who have earned a baccalaureate degree, have decreased substantially, despite the fact that members of the nation’s high technology sector have stated that there are not sufficient numbers of U.S. college graduates prepared to compete successfully for positions in their companies.

In a recent report from The National Governor’s Association’s Center for Best Practices (“Degrees for what Jobs? Raising Expectations for Universities and Colleges in a Global Economy,”  NGA Center for Best Practices, March 2011), it was stated that, according to an employer survey, “…40 percent of college graduates…do not have the necessary applied skills required to meet their needs.”  They went on to say that “the U.S. has a mismatch between the skills employers need and the degrees and certifications students receive.”  Indeed, it has been estimated that some 50% of the country’s high technology jobs currently need to be filled by workers hired from abroad. 

The need for sufficient numbers of appropriately-prepared college graduates to meet the workforce demands of our nation is a major priority, and one which will surely inform economic, academic and political discourse for the foreseeable future.   Countless programs exist across the country to help address various aspects of this issue. First, the problem of quantity: simply put, too few of our young people opt for courses of study in  science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the so-called STEM disciplines, disciplines which figure heavily in the ever-increasing high tech and advanced manufacturing needs of our nation’s industries. Indeed, jobs requiring proficiency in these disciplines have increased three times the rate of those in non-STEM fields over the last decade.  Here in the Capital Region, BOCES, community colleges, the business community, and others have come together in what is known as the Tech Valley STEMSmart Alliance   to “…advance and implement sustainable, scalable STEM education…”.  This is part of a statewide initiative  - the SUNY Empire State STEM Learning Network;  similar programs can be found in states all across the nation, a clear recognition that we must address the need for quality STEM education, delivered in a manner which attracts the interest of our young people.

Beyond the critical need to increase the flow of students into the STEM areas, strategies are also necessary  to better  align the content of our post-secondary  educational programs with our nation’s workforce needs.    For instance, robust partnerships have been developed between our region’s community colleges and industry in such high tech and advanced manufacturing areas as chip manufacturing and solar and wind technology to help ensure a curriculum well-suited to the technical needs of the participating industries.  

 Programs addressing workforce development are increasing across the country.  However, the almost exclusive focus of such programs on the community college with its highly technical, two-year associate’s degree leaves untapped a tremendous resource – students graduating with baccalaureate degrees from our nation’s four-year public and private colleges and universities, the very population of graduates which is experiencing high unemployment/underemployment rates.   Such four-year degree college graduates constitute the largest percentage of our nation’s college attendees; and, if those of us in higher education are willing to think “outside-the-box”, we can work with these students to create a new kind of graduate, a graduate with both the experience of a robust, liberal arts baccalaureate program as well as the hands-on high tech training of a community college.       

The workforce needs of US industry should not need to be outsourced to other countries.  By creatively combining the curricula and resources of our four-and two-year colleges in partnership with industry, we will be able to produce graduates with the kinds of “soft” and applied skills essential to the global competitiveness of our nation’s industries.