By Bob Kustra
As I meet and address parents and students at our summer orientation programs for new students, I am hearing a steady drumbeat of comments and questions about how our undergraduate curriculum prepares our students for employment after graduation. No doubt, employers have spoken on the subject of the value of a college education with their hiring practices and policies in sorting out our graduates who they deem ready for employment and those who … well, not so much!
At Boise State, four in 10 of our students are in pre-professional programs where the likelihood of a direct transition from the college classroom to a job in the profession is more likely. Accounting, engineering and nursing all come to mind. For the other 60 percent, most of whom are liberal arts graduates, there is not nearly the certainly of employment after graduation in a position that both parents and students expected as they wrote those tuition checks over recent years.
Yet these students paid the same freight as pre-professional students and listened to the recruitment speeches about how this all leads to gainful employment. Of course, most of our students are paying more in tuition — even when adjusted for inflation — than their parents, thanks to the states’ disinvestment in higher education. They are piling up student loans, working too many hours a week to help defray the costs and, generally, viewing themselves as customers who deserve a job upon graduation.
Just three years ago, parents and students found a justification for their concerns about employment when the New York Federal Reserve Bank reported that one in every three college grads was “underemployed” in a job that didn’t require a degree. That sparked debate and handwringing and little change in most places, but we do have some more information today that sheds some light on the situation.
A study out of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania indicates that there are a lot of jobs out there that require a degree and a few years of experience. And there are plenty of jobs that require no degree and no experience. But there are frustratingly few jobs that require a college degree but allow for no experience. That means college grads have no choice but to take those jobs for which they are overqualified.
Let that sink in: If you are graduating your students with nothing but a traditional degree, they are leaving your campus without the prospects to use it.
At Boise State, we are doing something about it. We created the College of Innovation and Design and brought former corporate exec and start-up leader Gordon Jones, the founding director of the Harvard Innovation Lab, to run it. Jones and his team are charged with reinventing how Boise State prepares students for success beyond the diploma, reimagining how we can team up with community and industry leaders, and, in essence, creating a new vision for the higher education of the future.
The college has launched high-demand degrees, most notably a program that blends psychology, art, computer science and more to prepare students for careers in virtual and augmented reality, mobile technology — far more quickly and efficiently than our traditional processes would allow. It has developed cross-disciplinary research opportunities in a series of research groups that give undergraduate and graduate students the chance to work as a team for multiple semesters to tackle real-world challenges. It is developing concierge-style academic programming for large companies in our region and expanding cooperative education opportunities that place students from all majors in workplaces around the city, coupled with face-to-face class time led by a team of faculty and business leaders. (One of its early students called it an “internship on steroids.”)
The College of Innovation and Design was built to break the rules — and you can imagine how that was met in some parts of campus. But we gambled that we had innovative faculty members with great ideas that simply could not surface in our traditional college structure. We were right!
Today, students from any major can earn a certificate in leadership, honing skills blended from communications, business and elsewhere. Last year, our anthropology faculty developed an undergraduate certificate in Design Ethnography, which teaches students how to use the data analysis and observational skills of an ethnographer and apply them to business marketing cultures so anthropology majors and other liberal arts students will be attractive candidates for marketing positions in corporations and agencies.
Perhaps most importantly, the college is leading the way in finding effective and attractive methods to “augment” our traditional majors. Students from around campus can take “Bridge to Career” courses that deliver valuable business skills, coding basics and other competencies employers are looking for. Unique collaborations with some of the nation’s premier private universities and innovators give Boise State students the chance to earn a certificate of readiness from the Harvard Business School (while amassing Boise State credit), or to master design thinking from the Stanford-launched creative agency IDEO.
Some would call what we are doing disruptive, but nearly all of these new ideas share one driving principle: higher education needs to deliver more than just a diploma.
At universities like Boise State — where we are serving a growing population without a strong college-going culture in a fast-changing economy that has shifted from traditional resources to high-tech — we don’t have the luxury of engaging in a heady debate between the value of a classic liberal arts education and the growing demand for skills training. But to be honest, I think that argument is based on a false dichotomy. Higher education leaders don’t have to choose one over the other — we absolutely must offer both.
By augmenting degrees with hands-on experience, practical knowledge and demonstrable skills-building — and being unafraid to bend and break our own rules to deliver what students need — I believe Boise State is transcending the tired “liberal arts versus workforce development” argument. We are preserving the arts and humanities we know are so crucial to our society and our students’ long-term success while sending them well-equipped to face the world beyond our campus.
Bob Kustra is President of Boise State University.