Skip to content

New center to help bridge gap between higher ed models and employers’ talent demands

Sean Gallagher has been studying for years. He is an executive professor of educational policy and executive director of the newly launched Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy. File photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University
In a rapidly changing job market, it’s crucial that students graduate from colleges and universities with the tools they’ll need to be successful in the workforce. But what is it that will best equip those students for success? And how can employers communicate their needs to higher education institutions? These are some of the questions Northeastern’s Sean Gallagher has been studying for years. He is an executive professor of educational policy and executive director of the newly launched Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy. His book, The Future of University Credentials—which recently received an association award from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association—also explores these questions, and research at the new center will help to inform how universities and employers partner to prepare the workforce of the future.

Gallagher’s ongoing research shows that a bachelor’s degree alone may not be enough to ensure long-term success in the workplace—that to be better prepared for life after college, students should never really stop learning. They should pursue additional credentials or educational experiences, and in this way, remain lifelong learners. As Gallagher put it, “In the future, there will be much less distinction between learning that occurs on the job and the traditional notions of academic credit and accredited credentials.”

To start, what is the future of university credentials? How do you expect degree programs, certificate programs, and job training will change in the near future?

In recent years, university credentials have become increasingly valuable in the job market. At the same time, universities have faced pressure to make their programs more relevant and affordable, and notably, new competitors to traditional higher education models have emerged. These and other trends—especially in terms of what employers value and what students are demanding—suggest a future where university credentials are more modular, more industry-aligned and experiential, and more digital. Degrees still dominate, but for the first time we are seeing many traditional higher education institutions develop entirely new forms of credentials while exploring new ways to deliver and earn credentials. Examples include “nanodegrees,” “micromasters,” and the increasing popularity of graduate certificates as well as “digital badges.”

At Northeastern, for example, we have led the market and responded to these trends with our online and hybrid degrees; the Level analytics boot camp; the College of Professional Studies’ new “iCert,” program; and our EQUIP partnership with GE, among many other examples.

Overall, the boundaries between higher education and professional learning and training are blurring, especially as the economy demands lifelong learning and credential attainment beyond the bachelor’s degree. In the future, there will be much less distinction between learning that occurs on the job and the traditional notions of academic credit and accredited credentials.

What’s the best way for a university to prepare its students for the rapidly changing demands of the work force they’re entering?

Versatility is key. Technical skills are certainly in high demand, but foundational skills and competencies such as critical thinking, writing, and leadership are the hardest for employers to find. Another important element is engagement in the world of work—compiling experiences and project outcomes and portfolios that employers highly value when they hire, and which complement the degree.

Undergraduate students should also strongly consider that a bachelor’s degree may not be their terminal credential. Credentials aside, today’s job market is rewarding continuous learning and skill development to remain relevant. And, about 20 percent of job openings prefer or require a graduate degree.

How well are employers communicating their needs to higher education institutions? Is there anything missing?

Historically there haven’t been many avenues for employers to formally shape higher education programs—the overall system and the vast majority of institutions are not set up to be particularly responsive to changing employer needs. As the economy becomes more digital and data-driven, it is somewhat easier to match what skills and jobs are in demand with what educational institutions might offer. Here at Northeastern, we’re obviously in an advantaged position with our experiential model, but many colleges and universities are realizing that they need to be more attentive to employer needs. Much of our work with the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy will be focused on bringing the voice of employers into higher education, and creating new forums, exchanges, and even software interfaces to inform higher education offerings and policies.

What’s the difference between industry- and employer-run training programs and alternative credential programs run by traditional higher education institutions? How do employers weigh the two?

Programs offered by universities tend to be longer lasting and are more respected and portable—and they are backed by the value of accreditation. However, many employer-run training offerings and professional credentials from industry groups are world-class. In the future, there will be more exchange between the two. Regardless, university degrees are seen by most employers as a foundational job qualification—the true “coin of the realm,” and of paramount value in the market.

How will the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy address these issues at the intersection of higher education and employment? What sort of impact do you expect it will have in this arena?

The center’s work is focused on creating a nexus between employers and the higher education community to generate solutions that respond to critical corporate talent issues, higher education business model issues, and changing trends in hiring and credentialing. There is a surprisingly large gap in the scholarship and understanding of how employers interface with colleges and universities, and how university credentials factor into hiring. At Northeastern, we are also a living laboratory for new models and approaches, so we will be studying and generating a variety of demonstration projects. Overall, we will enhance Northeastern’s reputation while generating impact in the broader economy.

The Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy is the first applied research initiative of the Professional Advancement Network, is academically affiliated with the College of Professional Studies, and will collaborate with faculty and staff across the university.