How Northeastern University Is Connecting Theory and Practice at the Intersection of Higher Ed and Industry
In the 21st century, the world of work is constantly changing. This podcast series, Reimagining Career Pathways, will explore the needs of the future workforce, rethinking traditional education pathways to connect students today with the in-demand jobs and skills of the future.
In recent years, Northeastern University has become known as one of the top higher ed institutions for connecting students to careers. According to Princeton Review, Northeastern’s cooperative learning program, which boasts 95% student participation, links students with a network of over 3,000 local and global employers. And within 9 months of graduation, 92% of Northeastern students reported that they were employed or in graduate school.
But Northeastern’s interest in career readiness doesn’t end with their own students. The university is analyzing and shaping the national dialogue about the connection between education and work through their Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, ”an applied research center-focused on issues and trends at the intersection of higher education and industry.” As founder and executive director at the center, Sean Gallagher is at the helm of research on industry needs, innovations to connect higher ed and the workplace, and bringing employer perspectives into the higher education community.
So what do employers want? According to Sean, in today’s workforce, foundational skills are a top priority.
“If you dissect all the job postings out there, or if you meet with employers and talk with them about their job needs that they anticipate—what you’ll also see is broader-based foundational skills: communication, problem solving, critical thinking, writing, team leadership, project management.”
So what can be done to help prepare students to meet the needs of the future workforce? Listen to our full interview with Sean Gallagher and guest host Kevin Fudge of ASA to find out how colleges, school systems, and employers are collaborating to prepare students for the future of work.
Kevin Fudge: Hi, this is Kevin Fudge. I’m the director of consumer advocacy and ombudsman for American Student Assistance. I’ll be your host for this EdTech Times series: Reimagining Career Pathways. Today we’re speaking with Sean Gallagher, executive director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern University. Hi Sean, how are you today?
Sean Gallagher: I’m great, thank you.
Kevin Fudge: So in a sentence or two, could you introduce yourself and the work you do here at Northeastern?
Sean Gallagher: Sure. The Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy is an applied research center. And really our focus is on the intersection of the world of employment and higher education, and bridging that gap and bringing the voice of employers into the higher education community, as well as testing and piloting and studying new models of experiential learning, of competency-based hiring, and of partnerships between corporations and colleges and universities.
Kevin Fudge: So what do you think will be the most in demand jobs and skills of the future? And how do you think we should be treating or educating students today for these jobs of tomorrow?
Sean Gallagher: Yeah, well there’s a few ways to look at it. On one hand, and I think it’s the narrative and the data that people see out there, technology has been driving a lot of economic growth. A lot of the jobs and occupations are being transformed by data and analytics and programming and scripting languages like Python. So there’s those technical skills.
Sean Gallagher: But from a broader perspective, and to your question about what does it mean for training students and thinking about job success, life success, career success, what you will also see, if you dissect all the job postings out there, or if you meet with employers and talk with them about their job needs that they anticipate—which by the way they’re not always the best at forecasting, even though we might assume that in the education community. What you’ll also see is broader-based foundational skills: communication, problem solving, critical thinking, writing, team leadership, project management. Those kinds of themes characterize across industry sectors and across job levels—most of the demands that are out there. And those obviously relate to liberal arts education, as well as more technical and applied education.
Sean Gallagher: So, in many ways, we think that it’s a false dichotomy when we compare practical education and training, so to speak, to a broader-based education. There’s many models where you can integrate both. If you look, for example, also at graduate education—most master’s degrees in the U.S. and worldwide are professional in nature. And when you go into a program like a master’s degree these days, it’s not just learning about finance in an MBA program, or about the latest software development tools in a computer science program. It’s also about teamwork and analysis and communication and so on.
Kevin Fudge: So how have employers’ needs and perceptions changed over the past few years? And how does this impact the way students need to be learning?
Sean Gallagher: There’s a few things happening. One is that educational preferences and requirements on the employer side have been escalating. So there’s a narrative out there that education and degrees and formal college and university programs are worth less. By almost every measure they’re worth more today and employers value them more today. And I’ve actually just gathered some survey data on that on top of what we can see in the economy. In addition, there’s more of a focus and an expectation on lifelong learning, right? That your bachelor’s degree, if you’re lucky enough to earn a bachelor’s degree, will not be your last credential. That you’re learning on the job, that you’re getting certificates, that you may pursue graduate education. So for example, by age 29 in the U.S. right now, one out of every 10 people has already earned a master’s degree. And that doesn’t count the folks who might earn one later. So the needs are escalating. And at the same time, you know, a lot of jobs prefer an associate degree, or maybe some type of post-secondary certificate. But certainly its moved beyond a high school credential. And I think that’s a major shift from years past, and just societal expectations.
Sean Gallagher: One thing employers often talk about, in terms of if you engage HR leaders and hiring executives, is that employees, professionals, need to quote unquote “own their own development.” And unfortunately, if you look at some of the data on employer investment and training, by certain measures that’s declined over the years. And it’s much more of kind of a free market. I like to compare that to the shift from pensions to 401ks. Where now it’s a shared investment and it’s shared risk. And so again, let’s say that you’ve graduated with a bachelor’s degree. You’re not set for life. You need to be skilling up continuously. The pace of change is great. And that just introduces a whole new dynamic when it comes to thinking about educational goals, and also of course how we fund it, and how we enable people to get that kind of learning throughout their career and beyond their initial college experience.
Kevin Fudge: And so do you think this is a shift that needs to happen earlier? Like if we talk about how students should be learning right now? Like, let’s say K12 as they transition into higher education?
Sean Gallagher: Well, it would be great if K12 would provide the foundation for broader-based learning—teaching learners to be learners and to be lifelong learners.
Sean Gallagher: In fact, as I say that, I realize if you look at most K12 school missions, you’ll probably find that term, you know, about both citizenship and lifelong learning. And so I think it is trickling down into the K12 system. But if I think about the 1980s and 90s when I was in school… You look back and think, ‘Wow. It was you go to college and complete college. And you’re set.’ And then if you rewind even further the 60s and 70s. If you had that opportunity to get a college degree, you were one of 15 percent of people in the workforce that had that credential. And the needs have been escalating. You layer on top of that global competition and the growth in college attainment, the rise of the middle class throughout the world, whether it’s in Asia or Latin America or Africa or wherever else. It’s competitive. And I think that’s why so many organizations, foundations, governments, states have been focused on this issue of educational attainment and kind of going beyond access and looking at how do we actually develop the offerings and get this ecosystem to work as a pipeline. Because there’s so many points in the pipeline between K12, perhaps a community college, ultimately maybe graduate education, the workforce, a lot of it’s certainly a little discombobulated.
Kevin Fudge: So you mentioned some of the history of higher ed and how it’s innovating and changing. And Northeastern is well known for being innovative and evolving with higher ed, and especially for its co-op program. Can you talk a little bit about what makes the co-op program at Northeastern unique?
Sean Gallagher: Yeah. The co-op program is a form of experiential learning that goes back more than 100 years. There are other institutions in North America that have co-op programs and sort of a university wide level: Georgia Tech in a variety of programs, University of Waterloo in Canada and a few others, University of Cincinnati. But Northeastern’s is one of the broadest and largest and most successful co-op programs. And co-op is when students, typically full-time residential students, so let’s think about undergrads for a moment, are rotating their classroom study with paid, typically six-month work experiences. So they’ll graduate with a year and a half of real world experience on their resume, in addition to their bachelor’s degree.
Sean Gallagher: And so it’s this cycle of practice and application. And we also do that at the graduate level, which is fairly unique. So you might come into a masters in computer science. You spend a number of months in the classroom. And then you go out and you work at Google or Microsoft or somewhere else, applying what you learn, and then take that right back into the classroom. And so that model has tremendous outcomes. But co-op, which is a much deeper internship in a sense, is really just one of a number of forms of experiential learning. And it’s that that ethos of experiential learning, and that culture that we have and how it runs across the curriculum, and how it integrates into career planning, that I think is most distinctive. Right. And it includes also things like study abroad and service learning. And now projects, real world projects, that our working adult professional students and online programs might do. Challenge-based learning. So it’s to say that we’re not just functioning in a classroom and focused on that piece, but it’s integrated into the work that employers need to do.
Kevin Fudge: Are there any other programs that Northeastern has tested and developed over the years to help students prepare for their careers?
Sean Gallagher: There’s a number. I would point out something called our Align Program, which was spawned out of our work opening a Seattle campus and engaging with some of the employers there and the needs that they had particularly for technology talent. And so what we did with Align was we created sort of an accelerated on ramp for individuals who had a STEM background. So maybe they studied economics or math at a liberal arts college, but they weren’t quite sure what they wanted to do with that bachelor’s degree and they wanted to get into a high growth career. Something more applied. We enroll those individuals and we bridge them—kind of get them ready for a master’s degree in computer science. And then similar to the co-op program, really in a co-op type of model, they are both studying computer science and they’re applying it in a job. And so they get the best of both worlds, in terms of work experience and a master’s degree in computer science.
Sean Gallagher: So that’s one experiential example. The other thing that’s particularly exciting is what we call the experiential network, which is abbreviated XN, and that is taking our co-op type of model into the online space and doing real projects. And virtually all of these are at a distance, so that if you’re, for instance studying project management, but you’re a nurse. And you don’t have an opportunity in your day job to apply those skills that you’re learning in the online program, you do a project with maybe a financial company. Or a government agency, where you’re actually practicing and applying what you’re learning.
Sean Gallagher: The other thing is we just see explosive growth and interest on the employer side. I would throw, to some extent, apprenticeships into that category of experiential learning. And it’s a spectrum. So you have states, you have the federal government, you have various nations around the world saying, look we need more work-based learning opportunities. And many employers are stepping up: Siemens and GE and IBM. One more thing I would call out is our signature partnership with GE, where we co-developed with them from scratch a bachelor’s degree in advanced manufacturing. And there’s an online component, there’s experiential component. These professionals are working with GE mentors on the shop floor of an aircraft engine manufacturing facility. And so that’s a very work-engaged model of learning that’s pretty exciting. Versus saying, well, we’re going to take our faculty expertise and just design a bachelor’s that students can get in-person or online. It’s a way that it’s integrated with the real world of work.
Kevin Fudge: You mentioned adult workers and learners earlier, and I’m curious what Northeastern is doing with that population. I mean, often people think of college students as like 18 to 24, when in reality a lot more people older than that are the majority of students that are enrolled in higher education. So how do these programs relate to what their needs are as they look to upskill and broaden their credentials?
Sean Gallagher: Well, for about 10 years, we’ve had a very purposeful strategy focused on lifelong learning, professional and graduate education, online education. And so we have grown our portfolio over the years. We’ve taken degrees that were, for example, a face-to-face master’s degree in areas like public health, computer science, analytics, biotech. We took those degrees and converted them into an online format and began to offer them nationally through our online platform, and also through our regional campuses in sites like Seattle, Charlotte and other cities. So that’s one particular effort.
Sean Gallagher: Also we have grown our offerings in bachelor’s degree completion through our Lowell Institute school. So there are offerings where we have partnered very closely with community colleges. And the General Electric program that I referenced, for example, is really a pipeline where we’ve begun to think about a pipeline from an associate degree to a master’s. Which is pretty unusual, right? Thinking about, OK, here’s a community college we’re working with the associate bridges to the bachelor’s, and then the bachelor’s to the master’s.
Sean Gallagher: Because when you look at, going back to the start of our conversation, the job demands and at what levels employers are looking for workers. But at the same time, we can’t ignore the higher end. And the fact that the world of work is evolving. One data point I’ll quickly share is that in this recent employers survey we did, 750 HR leaders nationally across industries and company sizes. We asked about, have your educational requirements increased. And if you have increased them, why? And of those that had changed their requirements, which I think was the majority, a good two-thirds said it’s because the work had evolved.
Sean Gallagher: So there is a discussion and a concern out there about credential inflation, and that’s that’s partly very real. But at the same time, when you dig in, you often find that the jobs and the work itself is changing. And that’s why they’re looking for people to have these higher level credentials.
Kevin Fudge: Right. And I think it’s important to note that the skills gap, it’s not just referencing the people that are on the shop floor. But it’s the skills gap in the management of people that are working and the skills gap with the future developers. So it’s broad-based. And so I think it’s a great point to mention that advanced degrees are needed as much as basic degrees, or if you want to basic associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and those transitions. So that’s really nice to hear that Northeastern is working on that.
Kevin Fudge: So as we think about the advancements in technology and its impact on higher education, how do we strike a balance and making sure that the students, especially at the K12 level, have that foundational base learning now in the present, but that we also incorporate some of these ideas about experiential learning and things that will prepare them for the future?
Sean Gallagher: Well, we’re certainly seeing more integration of technology into the classroom. I’m going to use the term classroom loosely. It’s happening at all levels. It’s certainly not as prevalent in K12 as it is in higher ed. But if we start with higher ed, and we just think about, well are there hybrid and online components to what’s mostly face-to-face education. It’s now more than a third of all the students and all the learning that’s happening is online. And so some of those tools and approaches are percolating down into K12. Another thing that’s happening I think is crucial and we’ve been investing in is K12 experiential learning and project-based learning. So there’s a whole movement that’s underway, and we’ve launched a network of K12 educators and administrators that are studying and growing their programs that are experiential.
Sean Gallagher: If we’re going to have more of this at the higher ed level–which is happening—and if governments are interested in the model and people are going to be kind of constantly studying and engaged in educational programs and the world of work at the same time, we need to start earlier with that. And we need to get students in that sort of mode of thinking and provide those kinds of opportunities. So I think K12 is an area where there’s a lot of experimentation that’s happening in all kinds of new linkages between early college programs, and project based learning, and AP, and online opportunities, where hopefully we’ll see colleges engaging more with the K12 system in order to make this more of a seamless pipeline.
Kevin Fudge: Well, it’s been really interesting to learn all about the innovation that’s happening at Northeastern University. Thanks for speaking with me today. It’s been a pleasure.
Sean Gallagher: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed it.
This podcast episode is sponsored by American Student Assistance®. ASA® is a national nonprofit committed to helping kids know themselves, know their options, and make informed choices to achieve their education and career goals. To learn more about ASA, visit asa.org.
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.