Across the Country, Universities Are Answering the Call for Innovation

Opinion | Postsecondary Learning

Across the Country, Universities Are Answering the Call for Innovation

By Dan Sommer     Feb 16, 2019

Across the Country, Universities Are Answering the Call for Innovation
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania USA - May 19, 2018: The Walking to the Sky Sculpture at Carnegie Mellon University after sunset.

On the heels of strong job numbers and low unemployment throughout 2018, the hiring outlook for the year ahead maintains that momentum. Job creation continues to be up, with the U.S. labor department just last week reporting a record 7.3 million job openings in December 2018 and payroll growth at its highest since 2015.

Yet, all of this good news nearly overshadows the reality that there is a finite pool of skilled workers for many of the fastest-growing roles, including software development engineers, business analysts, genetic counselors, and nurse practitioners. We need to move quickly to educate workers across the country for jobs in tech, finance, healthcare and more.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing about who will step up to meet the current needs of the skills shortage, and higher education has come under scrutiny, accused of not equipping students enough for the workforce. But across the country, university deans are answering the call to drive innovation within their schools in a variety of ways.

Notably, they are expanding their continuing education departments—the arm of the school that has the most flexibility, can move quickly, and is organically connected to the local community. Once considered an unassuming part of the university serving a limited demographic, today’s continuing-ed departments resemble innovation labs, able to launch new programs, engage with outside partners, and respond to employment trends—all with the support and structure of the university.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs for software developers will grow by 30 percent between 2016 and 2026, creating an additional 250,000 such openings available. This ’ crystallizes just one of the many opportunities—and challenges—these continuing education departments face. In my experience working with continuing-ed departments to bridge that gap, and speaking with deans of both large public research institutions and small private colleges, there are three specific areas of innovation that I am excited to see taking root: increased accessibility, more affordability, and a commitment to meet the fast-changing needs of local employers.

For prospective students, upskilling has never been more within reach. The University of Pennsylvania College of Liberal and Professional Studies recently began offering degrees online. And its partnership with the Wharton School, now the first business school accredited to offer continuing-ed classes to adults learners online, could be a model to encourage organic crossover between continuing education departments and the rest of the university. In California, UC Davis’ investment in community tech centers, like Aggie Square, is designed to connect the region’s top talent and encourage exposure to new fields and disciplines. And last November, the National League of Cities announced $100 million in local partnerships in more than 50 cities—with a specific focus on fostering STEM education and workforce training.

Another area of improvement is cost. Historically, very few continuing education programs have been subsidized for students. But now, department leaders are finding ways to ease financial pressure on students. Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies offers a wide array of scholarships, which are available to nearly all Master of Professional Studies students. And although not a formal scholarship, Georgia Tech’s low-cost computer science degree programs—built through partnerships with AT&T and Udacity—is making quality education affordable.

Deans are also doing more outreach to corporate and community partners to stay connected to the fast pace of change and the needs of potential employers. The city of Pittsburgh, once defined by its steel industry, has built bridges with Carnegie Mellon University to equip its next generation with the necessary skills to keep the local economy thriving. As a result, venture capital in the region is at an all-time high and companies like Ford and Uber are setting up major research facilities.

AT&T recently partnered with the University of Texas to teach design thinking workshops. Also at UT, the McCombs School of Business has moved into shorter skills-training programs, a positive sign that continuing-ed departments are responding to students’ desire to accelerate at a quicker pace into the local workforce. It’s also heartening to see smaller schools recognizing the value of corporate outreach, like the alliance between the Des Moines Area Community College and the Greater Des Moines Partnership, an economic and community development organization.

All of these changes spearheaded by universities are manifest in the cities and communities they’re rooted in. As job demands shift, so too has the traditional definition of education. Continuous, lifelong learning is becoming more and more of a necessity, and already we’ve seen departments adapt curriculums and forge local partnerships to accommodate and empower a new generation of students who come from increasingly diverse ages, backgrounds, and skill sets.

Correction: This article previously misnamed Des Moines Area Community College. It has been updated.

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