Northeastern convenes thought leaders to explore new national survey results

From right, Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun engages in a panel discussion with Gary Gottlieb, president and CEO Partners HealthCare, Jeff Selingo, contributing editor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, and moderator Kara Miller, host and executive editor of WGBH's Innovation Hub, the Innovation Imperative, Enhancing the Talent Pipeline discussion at the Intercontinental Hotel in Boston. Photo by Mariah Tauger 

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.

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.”