Closing the Skills Gap

Do we accept the status quo and watch as both our global competitiveness and standard of living fall or, do we employ the creativity the U.S. is known for?

By Dr. John Ebersole, President, Excelsior College

President Obama frequently reminds us that the U.S. is losing the competitive edge provided by our highly educated, post-World War II workforce. In fact, he notes that if present trends continue, the next generation of American workers will be the first in the history of our country to be less educated than the one before it.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, we currently have some 90 million adults in our workforce with no degree. Of these, 36 million have “some college” but no degree.

The impact of these workers not completing a degree, or even attending college, already is being felt. Household income has fallen over the last five yearsfrom $54,489 in 2007 to $50,054 in 2011. Additionally, at a time of high employment (approximately 8 percent as this is written), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that nearly 3.5 million jobs are going unfilled because employers cannot find applicants with the needed education and skills.

The problem is so severe in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields that Senator Schumer (D, NY) was prompted by industry to introduce Senate Bill 3553, the so-called “BRAINS ACT” of 2012. This bill will allow for an increase in work visas issued to foreign nationals with STEM degrees; a new twist on the issue of “outsourcing” jobs.

The current mismatch between needed skills and available expertise is expected to grow worse over the next 10 years. Anthony Carnevale at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that more than 65 percent of future jobs will require education beyond the secondary level.

In response to the President’s call for a 60 percent increase in degree attainment by 2020, traditional, campus-based institutions remain focused on retaining and graduating the next generation of employees. Community colleges and a handful of nonprofit, adult-serving institutions such as my own, are attempting to increase both access and completion rates for those seeking to return to college. We recognize that experience is a powerful teacher, and, with the right tools, competency developed outside of a classroom can be assessed, validated, and made part of a degree completion plan.

Nonetheless, the odds of meeting the President’s goal are growing ever longer. More than 40 states recently reduced funding for higher education. In California alone, the State’s financial position has become so dire that more than 200,000 prospective students were turned away from community colleges last fall. Additionally, the one sector of American higher education with the motivation and capacity to make a difference—proprietary schools—has been forced to reduce its participation due to a combination of factors, including abusive recruiting practices on the part of a few schools. There are also ideological opponents within the President’s own party who believe it is inappropriate to make money from the provision of higher education. As a result, recent statistics show that instead of increasing college enrollments last year, for the first time in decades, we actually saw a net 2 percent decrease.

What Employers Can Do

So, what do we do? Do we accept the status quo and watch as both our global competitiveness and standard of living fall or, do we employ the creativity the U.S. is known for?

While our nation’s major employers have been critical of higher education and its seeming inability to quickly produce the skilled workers needed, they also have failed to step up to the plate and do all that they are capable of doing. Employers can take multiple actions to assist in maintaining a competitive workforce and to help close the much-discussed “skills gap.”

First, employers need to encourage employee educational attainment through meaningful tuition assistance programs and a culture that supports those who need flexibility to attend class and complete academic assignments. Research shows that those businesses that support employee educational attainment are rewarded for their efforts through more loyal, productive, and capable employees. These companies also have higher employee satisfaction and stock value (in the case of public companies).

As the cost of degree completion for individuals has increased (thanks to the transfer of costs from the tax payer to the student), and the expense of regulatory compliance (150 new federal regulations have been imposed on colleges and universities since 2008), more and more students are requiring financial assistance to complete their degree. Thus, employer help is growing in importance.

There are also ways that employers can help speed up the degree completion process, while reducing their tuition assistance expenditures. It is widely recognized that the private sector spends nearly $100 billion each year on training and employee development. What is less well known is that many of these offerings can be assessed for college equivalency. The American Council on Education (ACE) has evaluated the formal training of the U.S. military for decades. As a result, many active duty and veteran students have been able to use these ACE credit recommendations to reduce both the time to attainment and cost of their degrees. This process is also available to the private sector.

In addition to ACE, the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS) (part of New York State’s Department of Education) and many colleges and universities also will conduct such evaluations. ACE and NCCRS recommendations tend to be broadly accepted, while individual institutional reviews (say, by your local community college) typically are only accepted by that school. However, in either case, the cost savings for employers, and time and work savings for students is considerable. With equivalency recognition, other than the initial cost of assessment, there is little ongoing expense to either the employer or the employee student.

Finally, employers and employees alike should be aware of the credit-by-exam programs of The College Board (CLEP), the Educational Testing Service (DSST), and the Center for Educational Measurement at Excelsior (Excelsior College Examinations & UExcel). All three organizations provide computer-based assessments that are subject specific (i.e., philosophy, ethics, algebra, history, etc.). Those obtaining a passing score (grade “C” or higher) on such an assessment receive academic credit that can be used to satisfy degree requirements. Each provider offers different exam titles, but all have roughly the same fee structure, approximately $100 per exam. Unlike ETS and The College Board, Excelsior provides a “practice exam” to help students determine their readiness for the “official” exam. Excelsior also has vetted free open courseware (OCW) and open educational resources (OER), which can be used to prepare for these exams. Thus, the cost of satisfying a three- to six-credit degree requirement becomes $150 (including the practice exam) instead of $1,500 or more in tuition for a classroom or online course.

According to a recent Zogby poll of business leaders, greater acceptance of credit transferred from one institution to another (74 percent), recognition of credit earned by examination (69 percent), recognition of credit through evaluated military training programs (65 percent), and recognition of credit through evaluated corporate or industry training programs (63 percent) are seen as ways to help reduce the cost of earning a degree. Clearly, businesses see the value of recognizing non-collegiate learning. Now, it needs to embrace the various methods available within their organization.

All Hands on Deck

If America is to have the economy it needs to support the lifestyle we want, it is time to have all hands on deck. We need traditional institutions to expand their adult and evening division programs. We need to embrace the role online education can provide. We need responsible for-profit institutions to be recognized and accepted for the contributions they can offer, and we need employers to support degree completion for their workers—with tuition support, flexible scheduling, the assessment of credit-worthy training, and the use of individual subject assessments. By so doing, there is reason to believe employee productivity will increase; employers and the nation will become more competitive; and our economy will be put back on a path toward growth. A true win-win-win.

Dr. John Ebersole is president of Excelsior College, a private, non-profit institution of higher education in Albany, New York. It is a constituent member of The University of the State of New York, and has its own charter and Board of Trustees. The college comprises four schools: the School of Business and Technology, the School of Health Sciences, the School of Liberal Arts, and the School of Nursing. For more information, visit

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