Scott Gordon had just arrived in his job as provost of Eastern Washington University when an alumnus approached him at a meet-and-greet in the Skyline Ballroom of Spokane’s Hotel RL.
The event was new, too. Called the Eagle Summit after the public university’s athletics mascot, it was meant to build enthusiasm among the school’s supporters. That has become increasingly crucial at a time when Americans’ faith in higher education is declining, governments are investing less money in it, and employers complain it’s producing too few graduates with skills they need.
Eastern Washington in general and Gordon in particular were determined to turn that around. So when the alumnus, who worked for Microsoft, told him that the Redmond, Washington-based technology behemoth would be hiring huge numbers of people to specialize in data analytics, he went back to the campus to fast-track a new degree program in that subject.
One year later, Eastern Washington’s bachelor’s degree program in data analytics had its soft launch this semester, enrolling a handful of upperclassmen. It will debut more broadly next year for an entire entering class. The first trickle of graduates is expected next summer.
That’s the fastest the university has ever introduced a new degree program, a feat it achieved by adopting off-the-shelf course materials already developed by Microsoft that the company is distributing to help turn out more employees with data and computer-science skills.
It was a rare solution to the massive problem of conventional higher-education institutions that largely operate at a 19th-century pace trying to keep up with the fast-changing demands of 21st-century employers — and an example of how tech companies and some businesses in other industries, impatient with the speed of change, are taking matters into their own hands by designing courses themselves.
The intervention is a direct response to the fact that the shortage of data and computer scientists “isn’t being handled” by universities and colleges, said Charles Eaton, executive vice president for social innovation at the Computing Technology Industry Association, or CompTIA.
“The industry would be very satisfied if higher education was taking care of it,” said Eaton. “I don’t think there’s a desire to get into this space, other than that it’s not.”
A Big Gap
CompTIA projects that 1.8 million new tech jobs will be created between 2014 and 2024, many of them requiring people with data and computer-science credentials. Retiring baby boomers will leave countless additional positions open. But colleges and universities are turning out only about 28,000 computer-science graduates with bachelor’s and master’s degrees per year, based on the most recent figures from 2015, according to the consulting firm Deloitte.
“There’s just a giant gap there,” said Sean Gallagher, executive director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern University. Fewer graduates are emerging from the pipeline than are needed, he said. “I think that’s why the tech sector has been the place where these alternative models are being pioneered.”
Tired of waiting, Microsoft, Linux and other employers have teamed up with edX, a collaboration started by Harvard and MIT to provide online education that is much easier than brick-and-mortar programs to keep up to date and to disseminate to vast numbers of students simultaneously.
The courses employers have been helping to create don’t just teach skills students need to work for Microsoft, Amazon or Google, like the highly specialized training classes that are longtime industry standards — Linux System Administration, for example, or Office 365 Fundamentals. Instead, the companies are working with edX and others to provide what they say are the educations that all of their employees require in common, including such abilities as critical thinking and collaboration.
And the pace with which they’re intervening has been picking up.
Cognizant Technology Solutions has joined together with a company called Per Scholas to offer online training for technology jobs to prospective employees in New York State. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is helping the for-profit university Southern Careers Institute create Woz U, an online education program to produce tech workers.
The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation in October launched its Talent Pipeline Management Academy, encouraging employers to become involved much more directly in ensuring that the education system produces people with the skills they need.
And companies including Accenture, Boeing and Microsoft have created the Internet of Learning Consortium to speed up the production of job-ready workers by using the internet to teach them what they need to know.
“It’s funny how this pendulum swings,” said Eaton. “We talk about the days long gone when companies trained employees from the ground up and now we’re talking about companies training employees again. These organizations are saying [to the universities], ‘We need people with X, Y and Z skills and you’re not providing that.’ ”
While 96 percent of chief academic officers at higher-education institutions say they’re effectively preparing students for work, only 11 percent of business leaders strongly agree, the polling company Gallup found. The Manpower Group reports that 40 percent of employers are having trouble finding workers with the skills they need. Forty-eight percent of leaders globally, surveyed by the consulting firm McKinsey, said it’s particularly hard to find and keep employees who understand computer analytics.
“Our academic institutions and the corporate programs that supplement their efforts are not successfully meeting the growing demand for people with appropriate job-ready skills,” the Internet of Learning Consortium complains. The education system is “failing to keep pace with the changing needs of the economy,” echoes the Chamber of Commerce Foundation. And the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine warned in a report in late October of “a growing sense of an impending crisis” as universities struggle to respond to these complaints.
To speed things up, a few schools are adopting the online content being created with help from Microsoft and others. That’s what Eastern Washington did, using edX courses in data analytics and related topics developed by Microsoft and other employers and academics, and adding extra support from faculty in classrooms in what’s known as blended learning.
“The challenging thing for colleges is that the technology changes so quickly that by the time you get your program up and running, you have to make a lot of changes and updates to keep it relevant,” said Lee Rubenstein, vice president of business development at edX. By comparison, he said, edX updates many of its tech courses four or more times a year.
Some academics take a dim view of this development. Faculty could react more nimbly to industry demands if their universities hired more of them and gave them the resources they need to update courses or offer them online, said Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State University-Pueblo and coauthor of the book “Education is Not an App.”
“A cookie-cutter course is not going to solve the need for creating thinking in the future,” Rees said. “Human beings who understand the discipline should be the ones doing that teaching.” Faculty, he said, “are the ones who are the educational experts.”
Adopting ready-made online courses may be cheaper than creating new programs at every university from scratch, Rees said. “But you don’t have a solution to the problem. You just have a lot of poorly trained data scientists coming out of universities.”
Eastern Washington combines the edX courses with in-person faculty support. That has been shown to improve success rates, which Gordon said are low for students who take online courses on their own. (This is a sensitive issue for providers of so-called massive open online courses such as edX, which wouldn’t disclose completion rates for particular courses or subjects.)
It’s one solution to some of the many problems universities appear to face in keeping up with industry demand.
In addition to long waits for programs to be approved by faculty and accrediting agencies, for example, many schools can’t find enough people qualified to teach computer science. The increase in the number of tenure-track faculty in that and similar fields has been one-tenth as much as the increase in the number of students crowding into classes, the Computing Research Association reports.
US universities produced fewer than 2,000 people with Ph.D.s in computer science in 2015-2016, the last year for which the figure is available, the association says, and it says more than 60 percent make a beeline for highly paid jobs and lavish benefits in the private sector.
“There is not much left for academia,” said Susanne Hambrusch, a Purdue University professor of computer sciences who co-chaired the committee that wrote the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report.
The Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, for example, is in the market for five or six new faculty hires per year in data, business analytics and other fast-growing disciplines, said Ash Soni, executive associate dean of academic programs. It usually manages to fill just two or three of those positions, Soni said.
This at a time when the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report found that demand for computer-science courses has more than doubled in less than a decade — but the supply of graduates still isn’t coming close to keeping pace with the number of openings.
“It’s not surprising that Microsoft says they don’t have the graduates to hire,” said Hambrusch. “There is a lag in responding. It’s really difficult to grow a department so fast, for any department.”
Meanwhile, more non-majors also want to take computer-science classes, putting further pressure on those programs. Nearly half of all jobs now require at least some digital skills, according to a Brookings study released in November, and students know those jobs pay more. So some of them are also vying for the limited number of seats in already overburdened computer-science courses here and there.
Economics is also driving students to sign up for computer-science majors. The median salary for senior software engineers with bachelor’s degrees in computer science is $104,507, and it’s $116,092 for those with master’s degrees, according to the compensation data company PayScale.
“The pace of change and product cycles and skills demands in the economy are moving more quickly than traditional university processes and program development can keep up,” said Northeastern’s Gallagher.
That needs to change, for universities’ own self-preservation, said Gordon, of Eastern Washington.
“In this new landscape of higher education, where state resources are declining, where there’s an erosion of the public’s confidence, we need to think a little differently and partner with employers,” he said. “It behooves us as an institution to do what we can to fulfill that need. That’s how higher education can regain the confidence and trust of the public, by stepping up to fill those gaps.”
Soni is more blunt.
“We’ve got to be at the leading edge of today and tomorrow,” he said, “rather than the day before.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for their newsletter.