Could College Debt Limit Future Talent Pools?

It’s common sense that organizations thrive when they hire employees with the right talents and skill sets, and for entry-level workers, much of their skills are formed and honed through education.

To put it simply, employers need educated workers and graduates need good jobs.

So, what’s the problem?

While there are clearly benefits to higher education overall, the decision to attend a four-year university is not without great cost – often long-term – to many Americans. In fact, a recent article in Entrepreneur indicates that the 44 million Americans dealing with college debt cumulatively owe an astounding $1.48 trillion!

Despite this debt – incurred with the intention of preparing students for the workplace – 40 percent of American employers report difficulties finding prospective employees with the necessary job skills, according to Entrepreneur.

While the rising costs do not yet seem to have deterred most prospective students from pursuing higher education, the Entrepreneur article points to several potential trends employers of recent graduates could soon see:

Focus on “Soft Skills”

In the not-so-distant future, “soft skills,” such as creativity, will likely be among the top three job requirements across industries. With new technologies around AI, automation and robotics, “hard skills” (e.g., programming languages, mastery of specific tools) may become less valuable.

The question then becomes whether most universities’ efforts to grow and nurture these “soft skills” equate to the hefty price tags they are commanding. Many students and employers alike would say the answer is unequivocally “no.”

So, what other options does that leave for “affordable education” to achieve these skills?

Community Colleges on the Rise

Employers may expect to see more resumes with community college credentials as people begin to seek this affordable option for increasing their earning potential without becoming saddled with decades of debt in the process.

For example, a recent California law picks up the bill for the first year of community college for approximately 19,000 state residents.

In addition to lower costs, community colleges also often offer courses tailored to the needs of the community in which they operate. This practice increases the student’s likelihood of finding a job in that community directly related to the education received.

While more cost effective and focused in their offerings, community colleges may not fully answer the call for greater “soft skills.”

So, what other options are there?

Online Learning Platforms

The range of online learning opportunities can vary greatly from short-term, affordable skill-specific education to fully credentialed degree programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Employers should take note of the fact that many online universities are gaining respect as credentialed programs offering options that can now compete with brick-and-mortar universities, given the greater flexibility they provide (i.e., time, cost and location).

Having been a contributing faculty member at Walden University for the last 10 years, my perspective of this topic has drastically changed.  With advances in technology, data tracking, interactive media tools, etc., I’ve seen the quality of online education raise dramatically. Students from around the world can learn from one another in a matter of minutes in courses that are updated quarterly to “stay ahead” of industry needs.

I do think we’ll see this field explode as the cost of traditional learning environments becomes unmanageable for many seeking higher education.

While employers may not have a huge role in “solving” the skyrocketing costs of higher education, they should be aware of the outcomes for their newly graduated employees (e.g., financial stress, delayed car or home purchase, etc.).

One way that employers can demonstrate value for the lengths graduates go to in order to prepare for their future job(s) is to support employees’ efforts to pay off the debt through competitive salaries or student loan repayment programs, among other incentives.

As stated previously, employers need educated workers and graduates need good jobs. Finding ways to work together to make this happen without allowing graduates to drown in student loan debt will create a win-win for everyone!

Rebekah Cardenas, Ph.D., is vice president of business development and assessment solutions at EASI•Consult®. EASI•Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI•Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.comor call (800) 922-EASI.

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