What students need from universities in the 21st century

Employers are puzzled by the gulf between the skills they need and the skills potential employees have to offer. According to the World Economic Forum, just under 30 percent of companies believe they have the right digital talent, and The Wall Street Journal survey found that 89 percent of executives struggle to find candidates with the right mix of social and psychological skills, such as teamwork, communication skills, and adaptability.

Higher education is just getting to the next level and bridging this gap. Huge numbers of students can take little out of their education, and too many – 40% – fail to master four-year programs in six years.

One reason for these inconclusive results is that institutions do not understand what students hope to achieve by going to university. In other words, the institutions have not considered the goal that the students have set for themselves.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen formulated the theory of Jobs to Be Done. In his book “The Law of Successful Innovation. Why Customers ‘Hire’ Your Product and How Knowing It Helps New Developments,” he writes: “When we buy a product, we are essentially ‘contracting’ it to do a particular job,” i.e., we are seeking a result in some life situation.

The theory of Jobs to Be Done emerged from years of research that one author (Bob Moesta) has conducted with Christensen since the mid-1990s. Another author (Michael Horn) has helped apply Christensen’s work to the education sector since they founded the Christensen Institute together in 2007 and co-authored Disrupting Class in 2008.

The theory is useful in predicting how people will actually act in certain circumstances (rather than how they pay lip service to something), and it focuses attention on the motivations behind certain choices. In essence, people buy products and services not as such, but as a means to a certain end. This truth led the late Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt to his famous formula: People don’t need a quarter-inch diameter drill bit, they need a quarter-inch diameter hole.

In our research over the past few years, we’ve collected more than 200 detailed stories of students choosing some form of higher education, from four-year university programs to community colleges and from online learning to programming courses. We analyzed the data and identified the main challenges that students felt higher education should address.

We found that there are five reasons why people go to higher education. Each of these reasons consists of decision-promoting incentives that range from functional considerations (“if I get another major, I’ll get a promotion, and it will justify the cost”) to emotional and social aspects. Here are these five challenges from Bidforwriting:


Getting into the best institution

Students with this challenge usually want the classic experience of attending a university with a beautiful campus and a prestigious name, so that they have a chance to recreate themselves – surrounded by new people whom they have not often met before. These students, however, rarely think about what they will do once they are accepted. For them, success is about being accepted.

A mathematics student with this challenge would say something like, “I want to get a degree in mathematics from Harvard. Progress for this group is to end up at one of the best institutions of higher learning (in their mind).

What are institutions to do: Many institutions are willing to meet this challenge because many students seek a traditional university education. However, the number of institutions that can succeed in this task is limited.


Meet expectations

These students want to live up to the expectations of, for example, their parents, friends, advisers, teachers, mentors, or their community. Like those seeking to get into a better institution, they see higher education as the next logical step in their life’s journey. They also have no other options (or don’t see them). While these students are indifferent about their choices, they reassure themselves that education will provide them with some sort of cushion and support for the future.

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A student with such a challenge would think, for example, “My mom told me I was good at math, so I decided to come here.” Often such students have set their sights on getting into a top university, but have failed to get into the university of their dreams, and then see no other options but to do what is expected of them.

What institutions should do: Consider offering students a year-long break, or position yourself as a transit institution – a temporary destination for students on their way to the right institution.


Find a way out

Students with this challenge want to leave their office job, get out of an established habit, move away from home, family, or town or break up a couple’s relationship. They want to find a place where they will have support and a checkmark in the “higher education” box.

A math student with this challenge will say, “I’m good at math, so I’ll choose a math major to find a way out of my situation.” The main thing is to break out of the rut, and as soon as that happens, one realizes that the problem has been solved. As a rule, few people think about what to do then, so they spend too much time, effort, and money on their chosen educational process.

What educational institutions should do: redesign the first-year curriculum to help students develop their passions and figure out what they like and don’t like.


Take it a step further

Students with this challenge come to college when they can’t find themselves in some area of life: they want to leave a company or current position or get out of some habit and are ready to step up and get better. They usually feel that time is running out, they dread to think what will happen if they do nothing. They know that specific practical skills or certifications will help them get back into the process. A student with this kind of challenge might want to become a data analyst because it pays well and they realize that majoring in mathematics will be the ticket to the profession.

What institutions should do: Form programs with a fixed set of educational formats that will allow them to arrive at their desired outcomes with the least amount of difficulty.


Making the Leap

Students with this challenge are eager to learn more and test themselves, wanting to follow a clear plan and gain some practical skills or certifications. They are generally satisfied with everything in life and can now set aside time and budget to pursue their vision.

The student is interested in mathematics because it will help him or her to work better with existing clients, or out of a desire for more in-depth knowledge. The student is interested in the discipline itself but does not have the same urgency to improve his level as in the previous scenario described.

What institutions should do: To attract incoming students, make the program (as much as possible) less risky and the learning process individualized. It will then match the emotional reasons students choose it.


Conclusions for higher education institutions

Just because students with each of the listed objectives have chosen mathematics does not mean that all universities should accept them into mathematics programs and that they will all in all cases meet the students’ needs. Nevertheless, this is the way most colleges reason and do it. To please everyone, most institutions of higher education have developed one-size-fits-all offerings that do not satisfy everyone and incur serious costs in trying to please students with very different motivations for admission.

Instead, institutions of higher education should make hard choices. They need to determine what needs they will meet and what appropriate learning process they should offer to help students succeed. This will determine how institutions of higher education should be structured, what they should do well, and what they should do intentionally poorly. It will also mean that they should not accept students whose plans do not match those of the institution.

Until universities understand what students want when they enroll and reorganize accordingly, the results of the entire education sector will be disappointing, and students, employers, and society will have to pay the price.

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