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Building the Platform for Lifelong Learning

Jeffrey Selingo

Author, "College Unbound"

This is not a great time to be a recent college graduate.

Average student-loan debt is $29,400. The underemployment rate is 44 percent for graduates ages 22 to 27, meaning they are holding jobs that do not require bachelor’s degrees. And the average age of financial independence for college graduate these days is 30.

Such statistics have given rise to the narrative that a college degree is no longer worth it, although volumes of economic studies on lifetime earnings prove otherwise. Even so, given the number of college graduates struggling to launch their careers, a wide gap has emerged between what the workforce needs in employees and what colleges are producing in graduates.

Part of the problem is that we have high expectations for the bachelor’s degree today. Thirty years ago, when fewer people required a higher education to get ahead in life, the bachelor’s degree was seen as a vehicle for broad learning. The training part came later by going to graduate school or getting a job where the new employer trained you.

Now we demand that skills training move in tandem with broad learning, and we expect both to be completed in the four years of an undergraduate education. For too many students, however, the bachelor’s degree is not providing that dual experience—high-impact, in-classroom learning as well as out-of-the-classroom, experiential and hands-on learning necessary for success in today’s economy.

Because of student-loan debt, graduate or professional school is no longer an option for many recent college graduates. They’re searching for quick and cheap add-on boot camps that give them what they’re missing. And a whole new set of providers are emerging outside of the traditional higher-education ecosystem to provide that lift.

Last year, General Assembly, which offers education opportunities ranging from short-form workshops to three-month courses in everything from digital marketing to user-experience design and web development, expanded to Washington, D.C., where it is seeing strong demand across all of its course offerings. The average student is a young, working professional looking to expand a particular skill set—or transition careers entirely.

No wonder why parents are asking themselves what thousands of dollars in tuition checks just bought them.

Now another player is aiming to fill this space between college graduation and the job market. The company, called Koru, recently launched in Seattle and has partnered with 13 colleges, including Brown, Georgetown, Pomona, Vassar and Williams, as well as fast-growing companies, such as REI and zulily, to provide short, immersive workplace experiences to college seniors or recent graduates (anyone can apply, although students at the partner institutions get some preference).

The four-week program, which costs $2,750, combines actual work experiences, practical skill development, networking and coaching.

“The economy has changed faster than colleges have been able to keep up,” said Josh Jarrett, one of Koru’s founders and former head of higher-education innovation for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “It’s not that colleges are suddenly doing a worse job. It’s that the expectations of the job market have increased. What we expect from early career jobs is both at a higher level and more specific.”

However, experiences like Koru and General Assembly shouldn’t be afterthoughts, bolted on to the end of the bachelor’s degree. Rather they should be baked into the undergraduate curriculum.

Free online courses have exposed the pieces of the undergraduate curriculum that are increasingly a commodity. The colleges that differentiate their offerings and prove their value in the future will be those “that focus on the highest impact part of the formal curriculum and the most learning intensive part of the co-curriculum,” said Randy Bass, vice provost for education at Georgetown.

He calls it a “re-centering of the curriculum,” and outside companies like Koru and General Assembly might partner with colleges to provide that piece of the curriculum. After all, it’s probably not a smart strategy for colleges to respond to every new skill set the economy needs when those skill sets are constantly evolving. Outside providers could be more nimble.

Right now, we think of college as a box: a four-year experience, mostly on a physical campus, at one point in our life. In the future, what we think of as higher education will be much more of a platform for life-long learning that will blend the experiences of college with the world of work.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Jeffrey Selingo

Author, "College Unbound"

Jeff Selingo is a best-selling author and award-winning columnist who helps parents and higher-education leaders imagine the college and university of the future: how families will pay, what campuses will look…