Higher Education vs. Business: How Can We Bridge the Gap?
Tell me if you have ever asked yourself these questions while you were in school: Why do I need to know this? When am I ever going to use this in real life? Can’t [enter computer software/Google here] do this for me? Chances are you’ve asked these questions numerous times over your academic career. I mean seriously, why did you spend all of your time in statistics memorizing and writing out formulas when in real life Microsoft Excel or SAS will just do it for you?
The theory behind the current method of learning is that in order to become a master of a topic, you need to have profound insight and understanding of the topic being taught from the bottom up. While this method may provide students with a more comprehensive grasp of the subject matter, it doesn’t prepare them for the application of the subject matter in their job fields.
For businesses, this is a giant problem as they hire recent college graduates. According to a study done by Bentley University, “58 percent of business decision makers, students, and job recruiters gave recent college graduates an overall grade of “C” or worse on their level of preparedness for their first full-time jobs. A hefty 64 percent of corporate survey respondents claimed that the lack of preparation actually harms the day-to-day business operations of businesses.” Not only are college graduates unprepared but they are also hurting their company’s ability to make a profit as extra time is spent with onboarding, training, and mistakes attributable to inexperience.
Another survey done by Gallup had even more shocking results. According to the survey which asked the American public’s view on the state and value of higher education, just 14 percent of Americans—and only 11 percent of business leaders—strongly agreed that graduates have the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace. The results of this survey only further demonstrate the mistrust that American businesses have in the ability of higher education to prepare students for the business world.
So why are students so unprepared when they enter the workforce? The answer can be found in their lack of development in key business world skills like critical thinking, analytical reasoning, writing, and communication. Businesses today are starting to put more and more value into students who are able to effectively demonstrate these traits rather than their mastery of subject matter learned in school. As Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement at AAC&U, states, “Employers are saying I don’t care about all the knowledge you learned because it’s going to be out of date two minutes after you graduate … I care about whether you can continue to learn over time and solve complex problems.” Being able to continue to learn over time and solve complex problems is a dynamic process that demonstrates more than the ability to memorize. Having skills like analytical reasoning and critical thinking can help employees navigate through gaps of knowledge which can be essential to innovation and productivity.
NexGoal can also attest to the importance of candidates being able to display what we call “soft skills” which include the ability to communicate and work as a team. We find that the candidates that have the most advanced soft skills are the ones that land job offers. This is why when we screen candidates we put just as much emphasis on measuring their soft skills as we do their professional qualifications.
The question remains though: is it possible for colleges to balance the range of knowledge taught through their curriculum and the skills and competencies necessary for success in the business world? The answer to this question is a resounding yes and both companies and higher education are beginning to work hand in hand with one another to solve this issue. One of the biggest attempts to bridge higher education and business together is Enactus.
Enactus is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring students to improve the world through entrepreneurial action. Students who sign up become a part of team that works to solve a real world problem related to the triple bottom line (people, planet, profit), which is usually in collaboration with a business partner or non-profit organization. At the end of each spring semester, the projects that these students work on are then presented in front of panels of judges (who are business professionals) in a competition against other Enactus teams.
The true value of Enactus however can be found in how it teaches students to apply and build upon theories and skills that they learn in the classroom to a real life setting. “Enactus provides students with opportunities to apply what they have learned in the classroom to help solve real world problems in their communities and worldwide,” says Enactus Regional Program Manager Chloe Shauck. “This experiential learning provides students with necessary skills like leadership, teamwork and project management to help them stand out to recruiters after graduation.” Students involved in Enactus are challenged to use critical thinking skills, communication skills, and teamwork to create solutions to these problems while being exposed to the inner workings of the business world. They also have a chance to audition these traits in front of recruiters, which as we mentioned above greatly help their prospects of landing a job offer.
Though Enactus is offered as a class at some colleges, most colleges have it as an extra-curricular group. There are however some universities that have decided to build collaboration between higher education and business into their curriculum. One such example of this is Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Their College of Business Administration requires all students that are seeking a Bachelors of Business Administration to complete a course called “Business Consulting Practicum”. In this course students are broken into teams and partnered with a local business or non-profit organization. They are then tasked with helping them improve some aspect of their operation whether it is marketing, human resources, project management, etc. At the end of the semester, the teams present their projects and describe what it was they accomplished for the community partner.
Just like Enactus, this course allows students to directly apply what they have learned in a classroom setting into the real world. Kent State graduate and NexGoal employee Brandon Harris experienced the practicum class first hand and agrees that it is a unique opportunity to gain real world experience. “The consulting practicum class is like an internship on steroids. In a traditional internship you are eased into their everyday operations, but in the consulting practicum class you are partnered with a local partner who is in need of your immediate expertise to solve a problem they are faced with. Students are expected to lead the way when finding solutions instead of vice versa.”
Rather than having students sit back and learn from their local partners, the Consulting Practicum class thrusts students into leadership roles where the local partners are actually taking direction from the students. Students are thus given an excellent chance to be put in a position of leadership in a real world environment. This is especially valuable for the younger students who have never been put into a role like that before.
As both Enactus and the Kent State Business Consulting Practicum class demonstrate, opportunities are there for direct collaboration between business and education. By striking a balance between academic theory and real world experience, today’s students are put in a better position to be immediate assets to their places of employment. Most importantly, collaboration may help answer the student’s questions of “Why do I need to know this?” and “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” and save them the hassle of searching for the answer on Google.