How To Fix the Skills Gap

It’s definitely true, as Tom Friedman recently noted, that many graduates don’t possess the skills that today’s employers seek.  Thankfully, some colleges have taken notice. They’re trying to address the skills gap either by boosting faculty-student mentorship programs or partnering with employers to better prepare students for the workforce.  Fortunately, these ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. Moreover, they don’t require the sort of government involvement that Friedman recommends.

Yes, Incentives Matter

Incentives matter—even at our hopelessly bloated universities.  And the incentives at most colleges discourage faculty-student mentorship relationships. While many faculty members would enjoy mentoring students, they simply don’t have the time to do so. Academia’s “publish-or-perish” mandate forces faculty to focus on research while deemphasizing formal classroom teaching, and, to a greater extent, informal mentorship.

It used to be that only research universities suffered from this problem, but today even “teaching-oriented” institutions place undue pressure on faculty to produce scholarship. Colleges are enticed by the tens of millions of dollars in research grants the federal government doles out.  Additionally, it’s easier—and cheaper—to evaluate the return on investment in research than in mentorship. The flow of federal research funding into higher education, then, has incentivized institutions to pursue research at the expense of teaching excellence.

This trend distresses me, because I know the value of mentorship firsthand. My faculty mentors in college and graduate school helped me clarify my professional goals and set me on the path to a successful career. One of my strongest motivations in becoming an academic was so that I could influence students like my mentors influenced me. I’m fortunate, therefore, that my current institution combines a strong classical liberal curriculum with an apprenticeship component. This is far from the case at most colleges.

Government Exacerbates the Problem

The Obama administration has only made the problem worse. Over the past three years, it’s offered $2 billion in competitive grants for community colleges that improve their students’ job skills. Friedman advocates for the government to expand such programs, despite no analysis of the existing policy outcomes.  One thing’s for sure: an increase in the availability of funding for this purposes will cause colleges to allocate human and financial resources to compete for these funds.

As a result, teaching and faculty mentorship improvement efforts are likely to suffer. For institutions successful in the grants competition, the grant resources will likely be used to hire additional non-faculty personnel to pursue initiatives. Faculty will likely only be tangentially involved in the process, and the new requirements that the “skills development” bureaucracy forces upon them will further reduce the time they have to mentor students.

Ironically, the absence of faculty mentorship will undermine the schools’ goals of improving career readiness among graduates. Faculty members are uniquely positioned to help students prepare for rewarding careers, and regular contact with students allows faculty to invest in their development. Through regular interaction, faculty can direct students to promising job or educational opportunities that will further their careers.  This was certainly my experience.

Boosting faculty-student relationships will likely address the skills underdevelopment, but it can’t occur within the current incentive structure. If colleges want faculty to mentor students for their careers, they need to place greater emphasis on student engagement and less on research and administrative compliance.

Daniel Bennett

Daniel L. Bennett is a Research Professor at the Baugh Center for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise at Baylor University.

One thought on “How To Fix the Skills Gap”

  1. The author teaches at Patrick Henry College.

    From the college’s website I find that the annual expenditure per student, not including room and board, is approximately $40K per student, far above their stated tuition (before financial aid) of around $27K. They do this with support from private donors.

    Now, with an education-related budget of $40K per student, I imagine Patrick Henry can do quite a good job of “mentoring.”

    At the public university where I toil, the education-related budget is about $15K per student. Nonetheless, we still manage to do a certain amount of mentoring, despite pressure to do quite a lot of research.

    I would add that the research labs are precisely where a lot of the mentoring of undergraduates takes place. It is precisely the “current incentive structure” that enables a lot of mentoring at such a low expenditure.

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