An old college friend shared an interesting column in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week. It’s a bit lengthy, and there’s a lot in it, but I want to zero in on two things about what this column gets at. I’ve talked about one before, and another is related to it.

A lot of what is in the column really adds to the problems colleges and universities face from their bottom line mission. As I view it, they face challenges with regard to what they are providing, especially outside of the realm of traditional college students. I wrote about this before, and the more I learn about what the likes of the Startup Institute (where I have taught classes), General Assembly and Launch Academy are doing, the more convinced I am of it.

The world of technology is one where lifelong learning is a fact of life, although that’s probably true of some other industries. For that kind of learning, there are now many more – and often better – options than traditional colleges and universities. Conferences, internal training, many online options and the aforementioned institutions are examples.

But there is more than that challenging the schools.

For years, industries have questioned whether or not a college education truly prepares someone for the jobs that are out there. In my field, it’s been ongoing; even when I was still in college, there was far from a consensus that even schools that had internships or co-ops (like my alma mater in the latter case) graduated students who were truly ready for what lies ahead. I read more than a few articles in IEEE publications talking about this during the nearly 20 years I was a member.

There is a more fundamental concern nowadays, though, and it touches many industries. Simply put, the jobs of today are largely not the ones of years past. They are more entrepreneurial in nature, and colleges and universities – along with even many schools leading up to that – are not making the grade there. That is leading to more attempts at innovation at earlier ages, including ones featured in Inc. magazine last year. The article on this is well worth a read, and the money quote is right here, from Craig Shapiro, the associate superintendent for high schools in the Austin Independent School District:

“The idea that you go work for IBM for 30 years and get a pension is antiquated. By the year 2020, 40 percent of the jobs will be more entrepreneurial in nature. Yet we have a factory-style education system that doesn’t prepare kids (for such a world).”

It should be noted that by “entrepreneurial in nature,” we’re not talking about jobs that need to be created. You may hear from time to time about a company creating a position for someone, whether a job that might better fit a current employee or something for a prospective employee they have come to learn about, but this isn’t what that refers to. Rather, it means that these jobs will call upon people to utilize the abilities you often see in entrepreneurs, some of which is discussed nicely in this Harvard Business Review article from last year.

Put another way, these jobs are going to call on us to do more than just come to work and do a simple job to get a paycheck. They will call on us to do different things than in the past. They will, for example, call upon engineers to have some business sense so as to better impact their jobs beyond being good at some aspect of product development. This goes beyond even things like project management or managing people.

Many colleges and universities undoubtedly offer a course or two in entrepreneurship. I know that my alma mater did when I was there, and probably does now. I would venture to guess that many MBA programs do as well, and perhaps a little more than that. But dabbling in it is not enough, plus this goes beyond offering a course or two. It means a shift in what and how things are taught all the way around. A change like that doesn’t happen easily or in short order most of the time, especially in a big institution like many colleges and universities are.

No matter how many issues colleges and universities have, the bottom line issues of how they serve their customers – students – will be bigger than all of them. The adult education space has already been disrupted. For now, accreditation goes a long way towards protecting the schools from real competition with their traditional audience, but at some point, that is bound to become less of an obstacle and perhaps not an obstacle at all anymore. If it can happen with one set of customers, it can happen with another. And for the sake of American business, as well as for Americans who will be working after their formal education ends, it will need to.


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