Ben Wei was already paying hefty tuition to earn a sociology degree from Bowdoin College, which charged nearly $57,000 at the time. But he worried his classes weren’t teaching him skills he needed in the workplace. So he gave up the winter break of his senior year to take a three-week boot camp designed to teach him how to work a full-time job.
The $3,000 course, offered by a company called Fullbridge, covered problem-solving, collaboration and communication—the kinds of skills employers say they want but aren’t getting from college grads.
“You can sit in a room and learn economic theory from a professor or a textbook, but at the end of the day, it’s still just theory,” said Wei, who now works as a data analyst. “They don’t really teach you how to apply that theory.”
More and more programs like Fullbridge are being started up to help students master career skills before starting their first jobs, and most cost students thousands of dollars on top of the already high price of their higher educations.
That, for some critics, raises the question: Why aren’t students learning these skills in college?
Colleges often don't emphasize job training
“These institutions are notoriously hard to change,” said Steve Farkas, a senior researcher at the nonpartisan organization Public Agenda who authored a study of business leaders’ attitudes toward higher education. “They’re not responsive to real-world concerns, and they are very protective of the standard operating procedures.”
A few schools have started offering programs to fill the gap. Northeastern, Mount Holyoke and the University of Central Florida are among the schools that have so-called “experiential learning” options under which students get to work with employers in their chosen fields before graduation.
But these programs are still more the exception than the rule, said Farkas.
Matt Tower, a student at Amherst College who spent his winter break 93 miles away at a Fullbridge seminar, said the experience was unlike anything he could have gotten on campus—even though Amherst has an economics program and some business-oriented clubs.
“We’re very strictly a liberal arts college,” Tower said. “There are very few options at Amherst if you want to prepare for a career in business.”
Ursula Olender, director of the Amherst career center, said the school is in the process of setting up a program like Fullbridge’s on campus to help its students develop “the hard and soft skills that are not offered in great depth in a traditional liberal arts setting.” The price has not been determined, but "no qualified Amherst student who cannot pay will be denied the opportunity to participate,” she said.
Bowdoin spokesman Doug Cook said that college does offer students other chances “to deepen their understanding of issues surrounding business and personal finance.” The school’s president himself, Barry Mills, headlined a series of lectures called “A Crash Course on Practical Skills," which also featured instructors from Fullbridge, and Bowdoin also offers a leadership development program and forums organized by its Finance Society and Women in Business club.
While schools such as these are working to shift some emphasis toward the practical, advocates for the liberal arts say focusing too narrowly on business skills produces students who can make presentations and read spreadsheets but can't think broadly enough to know why the information they're working with is important, or how to use it.
"What we don't want are universities to think they should become centers for vocational activities,” said William “Brit” Kirwan, outgoing chancellor of the University System of Maryland. "If you just train people to take their first job, they won't have the knowledge and skills and adaptability that they'll need later on in their career.”
Employers are demanding more skilled grads
On the other side of the coin, employers seem to be unimpressed with the job colleges are doing to prepare their graduates. Nearly 90% of 500 executives surveyed said college graduates lack the most important skills they need to succeed, according to a Northeastern University report released in April.
“There is a communication breakdown between colleges and employers,” said Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, a small liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Colleges and universities haven't done enough listening to what employers need, and employers need to talk more about their requirements.”
To meet the demands of a globalized economy, universities and colleges have to give students hands-on business experience so they can learn to apply their academic skills, said Jason Tyszko, senior director of education and workforce policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
“Soft skills are missing across the board, regardless of what industry you look at,” Tyszko said. “We need to make sure that the rigorous standards of the higher education system are better aligned with the needs of businesses.”
Outside companies step in to fill the gap
Colleges' slow response to the demands of employers has provided an opening for companies like Fullbridge, which holds workshops in cities including New York and San Francisco at a cost of up to $8,500 per student. Some schools, including Bowdoin, invite Fullbridge onto their campuses and help foot the bill for them.
Fullbridge is hardly the only—or even most expensive—organization that seeks to fill the gap between what colleges are teaching and what employers say they need. The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth offers a similar month-long program in the summers for $10,000, and is expanding it to December. Harvard Business School just started a $1,500 online course to teach undergraduates elsewhere “the fundamentals of business thinking.”
Thirteen universities, including Brown, Georgetown, and the University of Southern California, have teamed up with a Seattle-based startup called Koru, which gives students the opportunity to work on real-world problems for businesses such as REI while working under executive coaches. The price: $2,750, though the participating schools often subsidize the cost.
Additionally, a company called General Assembly has a 10-week course in business fundamentals and tactics for $3,900 that covers everything from financial modeling to team management and is touted as a condensed version of business school.
Internships are another way to learn some of these skills—for free or better yet, while being paid. But often those experiences are more about getting coffee than career development, said Dyanne Rousseau, a recruiting coordinator at Mount Holyoke. Plus, in some fields, internships have become extended job interviews, at the end of which most students walk away with post-grad job offers. Students now have to be prepared in advance to compete for those opportunities, she says.
So for now at least, students like Ben Wei may find themselves having to pay extra to help fill the gap between the theoretical education their liberal arts college provides and the vocational training their future employers will demand.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.