Article originally published in the New England Journal of Higher Education on August 29, 2018:  

by Aleksandar (Sasha) Tomic and William D. Rieders
August 28, 2018

These are very tumultuous times in higher education. Unprecedented numbers of institutions are facing closure, and quite a few are unsure how to proceed. Added to institutional pressures are issues around the ever-rising price of the college degree, and the overwhelming question as to the value of the degree, especially given the amount of debt that many students go into to finance their education. Also, regulators and the public are more and more interested in outcomes, with the possibility of tying some federal funding to these results.

While it is difficult to measure all the outcomes in higher education, the one that seems to come up very often is the job-placement rate of recent graduates.

This is especially true for adult, nontraditional students, who comprise a significant share of enrollments in higher education. This is exemplified in our MS in Applied Economics Program. The MS in Applied Economics is a relatively new program at Boston College’s Woods College of Advancing Studies that caters both to recent graduates and working professionals. It is a professionally oriented master’s degree aimed at equipping graduates to thrive in today’s data-driven world. The degree equips students to enter, change, and advance their career, unlike a traditional master of economics program focused on preparing for future study at the Ph.D. level. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive goals as our track record of placement in both industry and Ph.D. programs shows, but our focus is clearly on career readiness.

The general notion of measuring gainful employment was a rallying cry around regulation efforts of the Obama administration. Even though the Trump administration has moved to dismantle the gainful employment regulations related to for-profit colleges, the latest announcement on negotiated rule-making lists establishment of single definition for purposes of measuring and reporting job placement rates as one of five topics for negotiation. In other words, the government is interested in measuring job placement and probably acting on it at some point.

More importantly to us, job placement is also a topic that every potential student in our MS in Applied Economics asks about in the admission interview. Every last one. Even those who also inquire about potential placement in Ph.D. programs. They want to know how has been the placement of recent graduates. Return on investment (ROI) has stepped out of the realm of finance and permeated society, including higher education. Our students and their parents want to know whether the considerable investment is worth it. So, how does one ensure a strong ROI on their program?

The answer is constant listening to employers. What are their needs and how can we, as higher education institutions, prepare students for the workforce? We do not see ourselves as mere training programs, but as educating the whole person. Still, we need to understand what credential employers are looking for. Do they prefer bachelor’s and/or master’s candidates or will a certificate do?

We also need to understand what general skills our graduates need, as well as which specific competencies will push them to the head of the pack when applying for a job. Again, this does not mean that college is a job-training experience only. Indeed, employers often put liberal-arts type skills such as communication, critical thinking and teamwork at the top of their wish lists.

Institutions of higher education must ensure they communicate with employers how we teach these skills—basically teach them to navigate our transcripts so that they can more easily grasp what our students can actually do when they arrive on the job. Some concrete steps should be taken:

Establish advisory boards at sub-college levels. Most colleges within universities have advisory boards. However, we believe that more granularity is needed, especially in the case of professional degrees. If not each major, then each group of similar majors should have its own advisory board. The board should consist of industry leaders who are willing to guide the program on what skills are needed, and are also invested in the program enough to be willing to connect with students and to help shape and adjust the list of competencies as the market situation dictates. It should also include academics in the field who can help advise on how to teach those competencies. Big “blocks” rarely have to change, but finer blocks have to be adjusted more often. For example, in our program, we are not likely to ever replace our Microeconomic Theory course, but we have to fine-tune our Software Tools for Data Analysis course fairly regularly to ensure that students are being exposed to software actually used in the real world. Do we teach Stata which is very favored by economists, or R and Python that are used by pretty much everyone else? Finally, a good advisory board will be relentless in following up with the program, and challenging the leadership when necessary. We have plenty of discussion at our meetings where directors’ assumptions are challenged and examples are offered as to make the point. Including Excel in our Software Tools course is one such example, where academic economists (including the author) basically saw it as being “below” the program to do so, but industry economists in attendance “set us straight.”

Offer students experiential education. Use the advisory board connections and make connections with employers to help students obtain internships and co-ops. These experiences are invaluable for students to understand the nature of the work and become able to decide what they want or do not want to do. It also gives them a chance to “audit” for a full-time job after graduation.

Invest in understanding the market. In addition to listening to the advisory board, invest in mining of job-opening data. Tools to do so have become ubiquitous and there are services offering such reports on a regular basis. This investment is well worth the expense and can serve a useful purpose of validating or providing more information for the advisory board. This can also inform your strategy.

Stay nimble and responsive. While academic content is not changed often nor easily, as doing so can include multiple levels of approval and complexity, the “big blocks” that go into your classes probably do not need constant updating. However, you should be ready to provide quick seminars, online modules and other non-credit or small-credit workshops on topics that emerge as very timely from your research. A quick seminar on Python or a workshop on presentation skills can do wonders for students setting sail into the job market. Even a curated list of MOOCs on the topic will help, but if you are mostly a face-to-face program, some brief in-person training will be preferable.

Ongoing relationship development. Higher education has traditionally been very difficult to access for employers. All the while, higher education has relevant experience that can provide ongoing value, thought leadership and skills training to employers. The corollary is that these relationships can ensure that higher ed maintain a seat at the table, addressing some of the most complex and challenging problems.

Institutions must pay attention to ROI when it comes to operation, and we are all painfully aware of that. However, it is impossible for institutions to reach strong ROI without providing considerable ROI for students. Engaging with employers is a surefire way to do so.

Aleksandar (Sasha) Tomic is associate dean for strategy, innovation and technology at Boston College’s Woods College of Advancing Studies and director of its MS in Applied Economics. William D. Rieders is CEO and a founder of Meteor Learning.