A Vision for Re-Defining the Relationship Between Colleges and Employers

Last year, JP Morgan Chase announced it would end its decades-long practice of on-campus recruiting. The news came at a time when many large companies like Apple, Google, and Netflix were announcing they would loosen or altogether scrap degree requirements for employees, and the investment bank’s announcement appeared to be yet another sign of friction between higher education and employers. At the same time, college presidents and CEOs continue to increasingly call for greater collaboration between the two. 

So, why the disconnect?

In truth, the relationship between institutions and employers has long been broken. At too many institutions, their interactions are transactional in nature and dominated by pay-to-play models that privilege the wealthiest companies and, often inadvertently, the most advantaged students. While formal, more intentionally developed partnerships do exist, they’re often only seen between well-endowed universities and business schools and large, recognizable corporations. The majority of employer engagements look less like partnerships than ad hoc and impersonal business arrangements. It’s a system that is hurting our students — especially low-income and first-generation students who have come to college, in part, seeking the kinds of relationships that will help them succeed in their careers.

Students desire and need more from these arrangements. They want more than periodic career and recruitment fairs. They want a system that can truly bridge the gap between education and work. In my work with some of the nation’s largest public research universities, I’ve found that rings true for higher ed and employers, too. 

A recent Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey of more than 23,000 adults found that employers are among the most highly valued sources of career advice. But just 20 percent of those surveyed said they had received such advice from any work-based sources. Similar research from Strada Education Network has found that only one-quarter of working U.S. adults with college experience believe their time in college was relevant to their work and daily life. Just one in six graduates say they found their college career centers to be very helpful. With nearly 60 percent of students saying job and career outcomes are their primary reason for attending college, these numbers paint a troubling picture. 

It’s why the University Innovation Alliance is working with employers and institutions to create stronger collaboration between the two. Those we spoke to from both stakeholder groups expressed frustration at the transactional nature of the current system and stressed the need for real collaboration — for partnerships based on respect, communication, and care, regardless of how much one can pay. 

Today, we’re working on re-defining the college-employer partnership. Rather than being built around transactions and irregular feedback, these partnerships should be collaborative, frequent, and student-centric. Rooted in intentional design, productive partnerships should enable employers to identify and cultivate talent for their shifting workforce–and offer real-time feedback to institutions around what’s working well and where they’re seeing skills gaps. 

Colleges should make career readiness and professional development a primary focus across a student’s time at an institution — through classroom work and on- and off-campus extracurricular activities — by drawing upon the expertise of their employer partners.  Students’ access to employers and jobs should be determined by their interests, skills, and potential — rather than their major, academic department, personal networks, or whether they own business attire. True partnerships will ensure a seamless college-to-career transition for all students. 

When the relationship between employers and institutions is simply transactional, everyone loses. Working together, we can create a more inclusive and robust kind of partnership that will ensure all employers have a seat at the table — and all students to find rewarding careers after graduation.