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Northeastern convenes thought leaders to explore new national survey results

Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun said on Tuesday morning that the higher education community received a big wake-up call during the Great Recession of 2008, when many graduates questioned the value of their college investment.

Colleges and universities, Aoun noted, realized they could no longer exist in a vacuum; rather, they must be in tune with the world and equip students with the toolkit necessary to understand industry needs, adapt in their careers, be entrepreneurial, and chart their paths to professional success.

“Ultimately, we have to prepare our students for not just their first jobs but for life,” Aoun said during a panel discussion featuring CEOs and thought leaders.

Titled Innovation Imperative: Enhancing the Talent Pipeline, the discussion was held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Boston and moderated by Kara Miller, host and executive editor of Innovation Hub on WGBH. The panel comprised Aoun; Gary Gottlieb, president and CEO of Partners Healthcare; and Jeff Selingo, contributing editor to The Chronicle of Higher Education. The event—hosted in partnership with WGBH and The New England Council—focused on the relationship today between higher education and industry, and how CEOs and C-Suite executives view the readiness of college graduates.

In conjunction with the event, Northeastern on Tuesday released the findings of its third national poll focused on better understanding the changing dynamics across industry and academia. The new poll surveyed U.S. C-Suite executives on global competitiveness, employee skills gap, higher education outcomes, and suggestions for policy reform. It revealed a concern among business leaders about the pipeline of talent produced by American colleges and universities. While most executives express support for the American higher education system, they also believe that the U.S. is falling behind global competitors and inadequately preparing graduates to succeed in the modern workplace.

Panelists discussed the relationship today between higher education and industry, and how CEOs and C-Suite executives view the readiness of college graduates. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Panelists discussed the relationship today between higher education and industry, and how CEOs and C-Suite executives view the readiness of college graduates. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Tuesday’s summit was the first of Northeastern’s series to be held in Boston; the previous two summits took place in Washington, D.C. Northeastern’s first survey, in 2012, focused on the opinions of recent graduates; the second survey, released last year, focused on hiring-decision makers.

The latest survey highlights a concern among C-Suite executives about the notion of an employee “skills gap.” Nationally, 73 percent of business leaders say there is a skills gap among today’s workforce, and an even greater number (87 percent) believe that today’s college graduates lack the necessary skills to succeed.

During Tuesday’s panel discussion, Gottlieb noted that industry leaders must do a better job expressing their expectations and needs to colleges and universities so graduates can be better prepared for the workforce.

“We have, as employers, not done the greatest job informing higher education as to what our needs are and creating clear pathways and partnerships to identify the specific skills we need now, and the skills we are projecting we will need in the future,” Gottlieb said.

Aoun noted that one way to help close the skills gap—and impart to graduates the communication, social, and teamwork skills desired by business executives—is to integrate classroom learning with professional experience. It’s critical that work experience be integrated with the classroom experience, he added, saying that, “Through that, you not only learn job skills, but also social skills.”

In fact, the survey also found that a majority of C-Suite executives (97 percent) believe that colleges and universities should expand opportunities for experiential learning—a finding that aligned with prior polling results.

In his remarks, Selingo questioned why more institutions do not follow Northeastern’s co-op model, which combines rigorous classroom learning with real world work experience. But he also wondered whether economies would suffer if more schools developed similar programs.

“You have to give these students real experiences,” Selingo said. “But it worries me that these internships and co-ops might be taking place of full-time jobs.”

During a Q-and-A following the panel discussion, the experts were asked if higher education would be part of the American dream in the future. Aoun responded, noting that privatizing public higher education could go a long way to ensuring its longevity.

“Now we are seeing a nationwide race by public higher education institutions to chase the paying students from other states and internationally,” he said. “That is typically what private institutions have done. And eventually the taxpayer is going to question why they are supporting public higher education when their children don’t an opportunity to get into the college.”