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Broad-based knowledge, experience among key outcomes, higher ed experts agree

Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun said on Tuesday that the landscape of higher education is moving from a teacher-centered approach to a learner-centered approach, a shift that presents both challenges and tremendous opportunities for innovation and experimentation.

Complementing this shift, Aoun noted, is that 85 percent of today’s higher education students comprise “nontraditional learners,” including part-time students, working professionals, and off-campus residents.

“The role of nontraditional learners is going to force us to think differently,” said Aoun as he spoke at a standing room-only event at the historic National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. He stressed the need for colleges to adapt to their students’ needs as well as rethink how they prepare graduates to succeed in the global workforce.

In an effort to better understand these changing dynamics across industry and academia, Northeastern released the findings of national poll of the American public and hiring decision-makers on where they believe innovation in higher education is headed and what it will take to better prepare graduates for the workforce across a global landscape.

The second annual event in the nation’s capital focused on many of the critical issues facing higher education and revealed by the survey findings. Titled, Innovation Imperative: Enhancing Higher Education Outcomes, the discussion was moderated by Catherine Rampell, economics reporter of The New York Times and included Mitchell Daniels, president of Purdue University and former governor of Indiana, as well as James Kvaal, deputy director for domestic policy at the White House; Jeff Wilcox, cor­po­rate vice pres­i­dent for engi­neering at Lock­heed Martin Cor­po­ra­tion; and Deb­orah L. Wince-​​Smith, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Council on Com­pet­i­tive­ness.

President Joseph E. Aoun delivered the keynote address at Tuesday's summit on focused on issues critical to higher education.

President Joseph E. Aoun delivered the keynote address at Tuesday’s summit on focused on issues critical to higher education.

The discussion focused on a range of topics, from the importance of both STEM and liberal arts education to the importance of experiential learning programs for students that link classroom education with real-world professional experience. On how to effectively measure the value of higher education, Kvaal pointed to the Obama administration’s new “college scorecard” rating system designed to provide families with more information about college costs and outcomes. He said colleges must be rewarded “for delivering good values for students, enrolling students from all types of backgrounds, and continually improving and innovating.”

Acknowledging that institutions are often penalized by third-party rankings for taking bold actions, Kvaal argued that we have to find new ways to evaluate the mission of colleges and universities and reward those who provide a better quality education at a lower cost.

The survey find­ings also pro­vide a wake-​​up call for leaders of col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties on the impor­tant issue of higher edu­ca­tion out­comes. According to the findings, almost two-​​thirds (62 per­cent) of Amer­i­cans say that the higher edu­ca­tion system is doing a “fair” or “poor” job of preparing recent col­lege grad­u­ates for the workforce. Consistent with last year’s findings, a majority of Americans also believe that higher education remains critical to the nation’s competitiveness and must innovate in order for the U.S. to maintain its global leadership.

“Too many Americans do not have the level of education and skill needed to thrive in this economy and drive the next generation of entrepreneurship on which we as a nation have built so much value,” Wince-Smith said. “So this is a real reflection point for all Americans. We need to out-innovate if we’re going to out-compete.”

One key to increasing global competitiveness, the panelists agreed, is educating more students in science, technology, engineering, and math—known as the STEM fields. Daniels said demand for engineering graduates is growing, noting that, “The market is starting to respond. … We don’t think it’s a short-term phenomenon.”

Echoing the survey findings, the group also vouched for the value of a well-rounded knowledge base as a prerequisite for career success. Noting that “engineers are not great storytellers,” Wilcox, an engineer himself, acknowledged that while STEM graduates are critical to strengthening the economy there are skills such as writing, communication, and public speaking that are just as important for a well-rounded professional as industry-specific expertise.

The panel discussion often pivoted back to the results of the survey, which found that the majority of Americans believe a college degree is more important today than for their parents’ generation. The survey also showed that Americans resolutely believe in the importance of experiential education for long-term career success. This finding aligns with Northeastern’s commitment to experiential learning, as students pursue co-op, research, study abroad, and other opportunities in 93 countries worldwide.

There was also a consensus in the survey among Americans and business leaders that massive online open courses, also known as MOOCs, will fundamentally transform the way students are educated, but less than one-third believes MOOCs provide the same quality of education as traditional, in-person courses. Meanwhile, Americans and business leaders see a shared responsibility across higher education, industry, and the individuals themselves in preparing graduates for success.