June 25, 2024

Why We Must Connect Education and the Future of Work | Future of Learning & Work

Fundamental goals for American public education are to ensure that each student is prepared to be an active participant in a robust democracy and to be successful in the global economy. This requires coordinated efforts among government, philanthropy, the business community, and the education sector. However, as our nation’s economic and labor market opportunities evolve, the lack of alignment among K–12, higher education, and the world of work is further exposed and compromises our resilience and success. Our institutions are working to meet the opportunities and demands of the future of work in relative isolation. We must encourage systematic connections that reach across the educational, political, and economic domains to holistically prepare students for life, work, and citizenship. This demands a redesign of educational and employment options for all students. We must ask tough questions about what contributions are needed from each sphere today to prepare the workforce of tomorrow. 

Today’s high school students are arriving at college underprepared: 40 percent fail to graduate from four-year institutions, and 68 percent fail to graduate from two-year institutions.[1] Yet the future of work will require higher — not lower — college graduation rates. Already, our economy has 16 million recession-and automation-resistant middle-income jobs that require some postsecondary credential, as well as 35 million jobs that require a bachelor’s degree or higher.[2] Nearly half of American employers say they are struggling to fill positions — the highest number in more than a decade — citing dearths of applicants, experience, and both technical and soft skills as their biggest challenges.[3]

As our nation’s economic and labor market opportunities evolve, this lack of alignment among K–12, higher education, and the world of work will become further exposed and will compromise our resilience and success as a country. At present, students without access to higher education already experience less mobility and lower lifetime salaries.[4] Looking forward, if K–12 and higher education do not redesign their approaches to reach a broader set of students, we might experience even greater labor shortages and income disparities. If we want to alleviate these issues and prepare students for the careers of the future, it is imperative that we close the chasm between K–12 and higher education. 

Those attempting to reform the education system are familiar with the ways in which it is fragmented. Many have experienced the unintended consequences that come from working in isolation and proceeding with untested assumptions, especially during efforts to scale innovations or foster long-term sustainability. We believe the solution is to work more integratively: to resist the temptation to tackle siloed, singular components and instead collaborate on large-scale transformations designed around a unified vision. 

Looking for­ward, if K–12 and higher education do not redesign their approaches to reach a broader set of students, we might experience even greater labor shortages and income disparities.

That vision, when considering American public education, is to prepare each student for active participation in a robust democracy and success in an advanced global economy. Accomplishing this demands an approach that reaches across educational, political, and economic domains to seamlessly prepare students for life, work, and citizenship. It demands the redesign of educational and career pathways to allow for cross-pollination among all sectors, from business to government to philanthropy — and it demands asking tough questions about what each sphere must contribute today to prepare the workforce of tomorrow. 

Higher education can play a unique role because it has the ability to reach in several directions: toward both K–12 schools and educators, and businesses and future employers. Since it is often under the control of the state, higher education can also reach across to the governor, mayor, and other decision- and policymakers. As such, higher education can do more than effect change within a single institution; instead, it can help to enact networks and policies across an entire city or state. In short, to prepare students to become citizens of the world — who also have economic opportunities in the future workplace — stakeholders must abandon their traditional silos and work together to achieve coherence. 

The Case for Coherence 

Linear, laser-focused strategies are appropriate when consequences are predictable, contexts are similar, and results are easily measured and few in number. But in the world of education, where contexts are diverse, the level of transformation needed is enormous, and the number of stakeholders is high, linear approaches to change do not work. They accomplish superficial, rather than meaningful, improvements and can lead to missteps and frustration. 

To create longer-term solutions at scale, we must accept that education is a complex social system, and design strategies for change around that fundamental fact. If our goal is to move toward 21st-century teaching and learning that better prepares young people for the dynamic world of work, traditional top-down, isolated, programmatic approaches will not succeed. Rather, to effect broad change, we must be thoughtful, flexible, and inclusive, and we must consider myriad factors, including the vantage points and resources of all stakeholders. 

Three Design Principles for Coherence 

In one attempt to catalyze this shift, Carnegie Corporation of New York launched the Integration Design Consortium in 2017. The corporation extended grants to five organizations to design and implement two-year projects aimed at reducing fragmentation in education and advancing equity. During our collaboration with these initiatives — each focused on different disciplines, such as human-centered design, systems thinking, and change management — we saw several themes emerge again and again. Irrespective of the project or context, these principles seemed to be influential in making progress toward coherence. For those striving for educational change, we believe these three principles can serve as a foundation upon which to design innovative solutions, and a lens through which to envision ways of thinking and working differently.

Cultivating a Shared Purpose 
Rather than assuming that everyone engaged in educational improvement has similar priorities, deliberate attempts must be made to develop a shared understanding of what students need most during their journeys through the system. The work of defining this purpose cannot be done in an isolated manner; instead, a collective vision should be cocreated by various stakeholders, then anchored by thoughtful implementation planning. Developing a cohesive vision has multiple benefits, including increasing broad buy-in and helping individuals understand how their actions can lead to change at scale. 

One promising initiative that exemplifies this approach is the Cowen Institute at Tulane University, which shares its purpose of advancing youth success with a multitude of stakeholders in its home city of New Orleans. In addition to disseminating salient research and implementing several direct service programs, the Cowen Institute develops and leads citywide collaboratives focused on promoting access to and persistence in college and careers. These include the New Orleans College Persistence Collaborative and the College and Career Counseling Collaborative, bringing together counselors and practitioners from high schools and community-based organizations across New Orleans under the common goal of increasing students’ access to and persistence in college and careers. 

Rather than assuming that everyone engaged in educational improvement has similar priorities, deliberate attempts must be made to develop a shared understanding of what students need most during their journeys through the system.

By engaging in a shared review and understanding of data centered on the needs of all students, these communities of learning play an important role in cultivating a shared sense of purpose across a diversity of organizations and institutions. At the same time, they provide members with professional development, the opportunity to share best practices, and a means of engaging in collective problem-solving centered on improving college and career success for New Orleans youth. 

Cocreating Inclusive Environments 
This principle, which has its roots in user-centered design, encourages the consideration of various points of view when developing policies, prioritizing input from those who will be directly affected by the outcome. It also urges individuals to assess their own beliefs before creating policies that reverberate through the entire system, and advocates the shifting of power structures so that those most affected have the opportunity to share their perspectives and play a role in the decision-making process. It is only by identifying the actors in the system, understanding their perspectives, and using their input that we can create inclusive and effective programs. 

Transforming Postsecondary Education in Mathematics (TPSE Math) is one example of a movement to create an inclusive postsecondary environment. It focuses on a discipline that has traditionally been a barrier to student success: math. 

In one study of 57 community colleges across several states, 59 percent of students were assigned to remedial math courses upon enrollment, and, of those, only 20 percent completed a college-level math course within three years.[5] Through TPSE Math, leading mathematicians have convened stakeholders across the country to change mathematics education at community colleges, four-year colleges, and research universities so that it better meets the needs of a diverse student body and their diverse future careers. 

For example, TPSE has provided significant support in the national movement to develop multiple mathematics pathways for students. The goal is for every student to have the opportunity to take a rigorous entry-level mathematics course relevant to his or her field of study and future career and to significantly reduce the time for underprepared students to complete their first college-level math course. This results in more inclusive math departments and courses that focus on success for all students, not only those who will go on to be math majors or to remain in academia. 

TPSE has also promoted cross-sector engagement by facilitating conversations about effective and innovative practices — including the connections between college mathematics and the world of work — and then sharing those learnings across institutions. These math departments are supporting a rich set of interdisciplinary academic experiences and pathways designed to prepare students with the mathematical knowledge and skills needed for engagement in society and the workforce. 

Building Capacity That Is Responsive to Change 
To create infrastructure and processes that will be effective over the long term, it is crucial to acknowledge and accept the dynamic nature of the education system. This means prioritizing relationships and trust, and viewing a project’s initial implementation as the first of multiple iterations and trials, each of which considers the potential impact on different stakeholders. This is crucial because achieving broader coherence across the education system can seem daunting, so it is more manageable to identify a specific gap or disconnect to address, such as the transition from college to career.

Focusing on particular barriers and trying out solutions before prescribing them at scale acknowledges the dynamism of the sector and the complexities of coherence, while making meaningful progress on issues that matter. 

The University Innovation Alliance (UIA), for instance, takes an agile, human-centered approach to increasing the number and diversity of college graduates in the United States. Since its founding in 2014, this national coalition of 11 public research universities has produced 29.6 percent more low-income bachelor’s degree graduates per year, amounting to nearly 13,000 graduates annually. The UIA estimates that the total will reach 100,000 by the 2022–2023 academic year.[6]

True to the nature of the research institutions leading the work, the UIA accomplishes this through experimentation and iteration. One area of focus for the network has been ensuring student success beyond graduation through redesigning college-to-career supports to better ensure students find gainful employment upon graduation. The project uses design thinking, with its rapid prototyping of ideas and short feedback cycles, in service of reimagining career services to better support low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color. 

The process of innovation starts with understanding the perspective of students and the current practices on campuses; providing career services professionals with the capacity, time, and connections they need to generate new campus solutions; and engaging employers and other stakeholders in the redesign. This approach is consistent with the vision of the UIA, that “by piloting new interventions, sharing insights about their relative cost and effectiveness, and scaling those interventions that are successful [,] . . . [its] collaborative work will catalyze systemic changes in the entire higher education sector.[7]

An Integrative Pathway to the Future 

Strides in educational coherence are being made on a regional level, too. Tennessee and Colorado, for example, have adopted holistic cradle-to-career solutions that intentionally plan for the duration of their residents’ lifetimes, and the Central Ohio Compact has mobilized K–12, higher education, community-based organizations, and local industry with the goal of helping 65 percent of local adults earn a postsecondary credential by 2025.[8] Each of these initiatives exemplifies the design principles described earlier, by considering the experiences of key actors and employing a multistakeholder approach that includes policymakers — factors crucial to enacting change on a systemic level.

In most of the country, education, employment, and economic reform remain isolated in both policy and practice. If we continue down this path, limiting ourselves to what is possible within each of our silos, our mutual interests will soon be consumed by our differences.

Though these projects are promising, they are not enough. In most of the country, education, employment, and economic reform remain isolated in both policy and practice. If we continue down this path, limiting ourselves to what is possible within each of our silos, our mutual interests will soon be consumed by our differences. For the revolutionary changes that the future demands, we must move beyond this fragmented way of thinking and working, and accept that history’s boundaries no longer apply. We must take a coherent approach to connecting education and the future of work, harnessing integrative design principles to foster progress, flexibility, and inclusivity. To improve today and prepare for the future, we must build on these ideas together. We must embrace a user-centered approach that is designed around our ultimate goal: empowering and preparing our nation’s youth for fulfilling, engaged lives and productive careers, now and for decades to come.

[1] National Center for Education Statistics, “Undergraduate Retention and Graduation Rates,” May 2019, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_ctr.asp.

[2] Anthony P. Carnevale, Jeff Strohl, Neil Ridley, and Artem Gulish, “Three Educational Pathways to Good Jobs,” Georgetown University, 2018, https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/3pathways/, 10.

[3] Manpower Group, “Solving the Talent Shortage: Build, Buy, Borrow and Bridge,” 2018, https://go.manpowergroup.com/talent-shortage-2018#thereport, 5–7.

[4] Jennifer Ma, Matea Penda, and Meredith Welch, “Education Pays 2016: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society,” College Board, 2016, https://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/education-pays-2016-full-report.pdf, 3–4.

[5] T. Bailey, D. W. Jeong, and S. W. Cho, “Referral, Enrollment, and Completion in Developmental Education Sequences in Community Colleges, Economics of Education Review 29, no. 2 (2010): 255–70.

[6] The University Innovation Alliance, “Our Results,” http://www.theuia.org/#about.

[7] The University Innovation Alliance, “Vision and Prospectus,” http://www.theuia.org/sites/default/files/UIA-Vision-Prospectus.pdf.

[8] Central Ohio Compact, “Central Ohio’s Most Critical Challenge,” http://centralohiocompact.org/what-is-the-compact/our-challenge/.

Excerpted from The Great Skills Gap: Optimizing Talent for the Future of Work (Stanford Business Books, 2021), edited by Jason Wingard, Dean Emeritus and Professor of Human Capital Management at Columbia University School of Professional Studies. Reprinted with permission.

LaVerne Srinivasan is vice president of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s National Program and program director of Education, Farhad Asghar is the Education program officer of the Pathways to Postsecondary Success portfolio, and Elise Henson is a former program analyst at the Corporation.