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Innovations in Higher Education Should Focus on Career Attainment

by Kelly Petty, published

employment after college Arvind Balaraman /

When universities and colleges transform their educational models, matriculating a large number of students through degree completion becomes the major goal. Higher education institutions desire to be the main gateway to greater employment in the workforce; but for innovation to truly work, researchers say, colleges and universities must make job attainment the main driving force to motivate students in the 21st century.

“Higher education is not carefully aligned with the labor market,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director and research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Carnevale noted that within university culture, there is an accepted “seat of the pants judgement” when it comes to understanding the relationship between degree attainment and job placement. Most times, said the professor, college and university administrations do not attempt to align academic structures with the labor market, which often backfires on the student.

“There’s a lot of buyer's regret,” said Carnevale. “ You ask some people a couple years out of college if they had to do it all over again, they would choose a different major. These concerns go unattended by institutions.”

This is evident in a recent study coauthored by Carnevale and fellow research professor and senior economist, Ban Cheah, which found differences in degree versus employment status. The results showed that while a bachelor’s degree will secure better levels of employment and salary, certain majors fared better in the economy than others.

Elementary education, nursing, and parks and rec/physical fitness occupations maintain nearly recession-proof employment numbers. Running between 4 to 5 percent unemployment, these three career fields are buffered by either high turnover as people are promoted to management positions or switch careers, or by significant volumes of retirement by older workers to make room for younger employees, as in the case of teaching and social work.

Unemployment for architecture majors, however, has swelled to 12.8 percent recently due to setbacks in the housing market. Social sciences and liberal arts, ranging from law and public policy to liberal arts, maintain unemployment numbers of at least 10 percent.

Carnevale also warned against discrepancies in unemployment numbers for certain fields. Information Systems was found to have a high unemployment rate due to the inclusion of clerical and support jobs that act as the interface between customers and programmers.

These type of jobs, said Carnevale, reflect the notion that builders and programmers of computer technology are more valuable and maintain greater employment than users of computer technology.

“They tend to be first fired and last hired,” he said.

Ultimately, the study found that both graduate degree attainment and professional experience are the keys to getting higher salaries and lower unemployment. The study also showed that careers with initially high unemployment, such as law, social sciences, the arts, and even computer and mathematics, dropped dramatically by several percentage points once postgraduate experience and graduate degree completion was accounted for. As a result, salaries also skyrocketed from the low 30s to the high 50s and 60s, and even the six-figure level.

For these reasons, closing the gap between workforce and education is necessary.

“Colleges are still organized by academic discipline,” said Carnevale.

Some universities are moving to reflect economic needs. The University of Central Florida developed a partnership to build a new $655 million Veterans Administration Medical Center at their Lake Nona-based Medical City Campus.

Additionally, a residential, office and retail development “creative village” complex will be built on a 68-acre plot of land near the university’s Orlando campus. This would be home to several digital media and creative companies, as well as offer another academic space for UCF. It would accompany the current UCF Center for Emerging Media, located next door, which offers an interactive studio for video-game designers.

Carnevale said that innovation at the nation’s higher education institutions is great only if it begins to acknowledge what students do after they leave the classroom and not just when they are in it.

“We all agree that college allows you to live more fully in your time, but in a market economy you can’t do that if you’re living in your parent’s basement," he said. "[Universities] need to pay attention to what the employment prospects are. That’s really a new idea.”

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