Can’t Afford a College Degree? Big Business May Have An Alternative

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

If you want to improve your standing in life, most people will tell you that education is the key. That’s mostly true – education has long been seen as the panacea for poverty and social mobility. But the costs have spiraled wildly out of control over the past couple of decades, and the average student now graduates with significant levels of debt. So, what are you supposed to do if you want to ascend, but don’t want to take on all of that debt?

This is the question facing millions, and there’s no real answer or solution on the table. But ideas are starting to boil to the surface, and some economists are suggesting that employers themselves start shouldering more of the burden of training costs.

According to a report issued by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, higher education is due for some disruption – the same type of disruption seen in many other industries, spawning companies like Uber, or Airbnb. The Chamber’s report suggests that business itself be the catalyst for that disruption, by taking on the role of educator to train the workforces they need, rather than sort through the incoming graduating class year after year.

Businesses have blamed slow hiring practices on a lack of available skill and talent coming out of our college and university systems. Basically, schools aren’t teaching students what they need to know to get jobs in today’s economy, and that’s one of the reasons the hiring process takes so long, and that economic growth has been relatively sluggish. To bridge the gap between what colleges deem “job-ready” and how employers define it, the report in question suggests that the business sector create its own accreditation system.

“According to a survey by Gallup, only 11% of business leaders perceive college graduates to be ready for work, whereas 96% of chief academic officers in our nation’s colleges believe students are adequately prepared to start their careers. Students themselves perceive this disconnect, with only 35% feeling prepared to enter the world of work,” the Chamber’s report says. “We argue that there is a need for a different approach that would establish a voluntary, employer-driven talent supplier recognition and certification system – one that can complement the existing accreditation system and be used to improve government-supported quality assurance systems over time.”

The “different approach” the Chamber suggests would basically take blueprints from supply chain management strategies, and use the same principles to create a workforce development process that ensures grads are hitting the labor market with resumes that are attractive to employers. Obviously, there’s an awful lot to the plan, but the report narrows things down to a handful of key concepts that employers could use in a prospective process to pump out talent. Those include focusing on end-customer requirements, developing collaboration, access to a broad and diverse network of suppliers (workers, in this case), and an emphasis on performance.

There’s more to it, so be sure to read the entire report for the details. But what’s important is that there is a clear recognition from America’s business community that something is amiss in the education system. Grads can’t do what employers need, and in order to fix it, the Chamber of Commerce is recommending that the employers themselves take on some of the burden.

This isn’t really a new idea. After all, apprenticeships and other related programs have been around forever. They just seem to have gone out of style in recent decades, as younger generations focus less and less on trade-oriented professions, and union membership dwindles.

Whether or not anything actually come of this proposal is probably a ways off. Figuring out some sort of business-certified credential system, and getting it to function within the higher education system, is a very big task. But it’s clear that something’s going to have to change soon. Young people leaving high school are generally faced with one of two options: entering the workforce with a high school diploma and take their chances, or taking on, in many cases, a hefty load of student debt to earn a degree.

It’s a tough choice – particularly for someone who is 17 or 18 years old. And if they’re graduating with a near-worthless degree on the other end? That doesn’t do any good for anyone. Not the student, not the university system, nor the economy at large.

The Chamber of Commerce has an interesting proposal, but higher education is a massive system – one that will be difficult to overhaul. That doesn’t mean that it can’t, or doesn’t need to be, however. This idea may have legs, but we’ll have to wait and see when high school grads will face better options after snagging their diplomas.

Follow Sam on Facebook and Twitter @SliceOfGinger

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