Today’s high school graduates are increasingly questioning whether higher education is worth it, and that’s pushing colleges to rethink the value they bring students.
This was a key theme I heard at last week’s SXSW EDU conference, where several panels addressed what today’s generation of students want, and how colleges can respond. It was also a top-of-mind issue for me coming into the conference. As a graduate student in Stanford University’s School of Education and Public Policy department, I’ve been examining the intersection between higher education and the working world for the past two years.
One survey presented by ECMC Group during a session on “Is College Worth It? Re-bundling Higher Education” noted that today’s students are very much focused on the tangible — specifically, maximizing future career outcomes and earnings potential and building durable, technical skill sets. The survey found that 81 percent of students want skills they’ll use in the working world after college. What they’re not interested in, however, is paying the ever-rising price of tuition just to graduate without a job that can pay off those debts.
As a sign of how many students worry about the return on a college investment, about half of Gen Zers surveyed believe they can be successful through alternative pathways, said Laura Graf, senior director at ECMC Group. She and other panelists discussed the need to think more deeply about how colleges are defining the purpose and value of higher education, especially within the context of the latest generation of learners.
Plenty of folks had ideas for how colleges can respond.
Jessica Hinkle, senior vice president at Strada Education Network, said that infusing work-based learning into post-secondary education programs, along with wrap-around career prep supports, can be an effective strategy to meet the growing needs of this new generation of students.
Such work-based learning opportunities, like “microinternships”, are already being implemented in institutions like the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Launched in 2022, the university’s microinternship and mentoring program connects students with paid positions at local organizations for a couple of weeks.
Through structuring the program as paid microinternships, UNL recognizes that many students, especially those from historically underserved backgrounds, may be working other part-time jobs while in college. These students don’t have the financial resources or time to tack on a full-time internship. And without internship experience, these students lack resume-building opportunities to develop professionally and jumpstart their careers. The microinternship program helps fill that experiential gap, aiming to improve underserved students’ career outcomes and socio-economic mobility after graduation.
While the program is currently only open to first-generation students and students of color, UNL hopes to ultimately expand the effort to give all students the chance to develop durable professional skills and build social capital.
Another way colleges are responding to this demand for workplace skills is to build stronger relationships with employers.
Speaking on a panel around credentials of value in higher education, Charisma Edwards, a technology strategist at Microsoft, noted the importance of building mutually aligned partnerships between colleges and employers, ensuring that students have access to the latest career-oriented training. To create those partnerships, Edwards suggests that colleges and businesses hold seats on each other’s advisory boards, forming the infrastructure for sustained communication and feedback loops.
Ultimately, building more skills-based learning into college and university offerings will require more transparency around student career outcomes, greater alignment between colleges and industry, and, of course, feedback and support from the higher ed community.
“The student is changing,” says Courtney Strayer, a member of the career services team at University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Maybe it’s time for higher ed to change along with them.