Shared Pain in the C-Suite and on Campus

As major employers downplay the need for a four-year degree, universities are being slammed with falling enrollments. What’s the solution?

It’s possible that the nation has seen a greater disconnect between employee hiring patterns and college enrollment—but hiring managers and university enrollment executives alike might be hard-pressed to tell you when that might have been.

Even with interest rates rising, with inflation barely cooling from the red-hot levels of 2022, and fears of a recession still unsettling stomachs in C-suites, employers are still hiring. And they’re still complaining about unprecedented challenges in finding, acquiring, and retaining talent.

At the same time, the nation’s campuses continue to empty out. Last year, the number of students enrolled in American universities was a staggering 4 million below where it was in 2012. Consider what that will mean over the next four years as employers are hoping to refill the personnel pipeline with higher-educated students.

The picture isn’t entirely dark, though: Some key sectors of the U.S. economy—particularly hospitality venues like travel and restaurants—have seen employment come storming back from early pandemic-era lows. But with a difference this time: Many people aren’t coming back to those venues without substantial pay increases.

According to the global HR services firm Gartner, the employee value proposition with regard to work is being transformed before our eyes. “The EVP for the post-pandemic workforce,” the company said amid the tumult of workplace disruption in the pandemic, “must orient toward employees as people, not workers; provide an exceptional life, not work, experience; and focus on the feelings, not just the features that match employee needs.” The pandemic, it declared, changed the relationship between people and their work. 

One of those trend lines is tightly entwined with the fates of colleges. In recent months, major U.S. employers have gone public with declarations that they would relax their requirements for college degrees to fill even high-level roles. Among them are tech giants Microsoft, and Google, financial-services monolith EY, and even the media conglomerate Penguin Random House. Intelligent.com, in a survey last year, reported that 53 percent of hiring managers said their company had done the same.

Even public-sector employers are yielding to the pressure, as with announcements last year that Colorado and Maryland would relax degree requirements for state workers.

It’s hard to imagine a cultural shift that could be more alarming to university administrators, coming after a decade of enrollment declines. They, too, are reassessing a value proposition—that of higher education itself—and moving swiftly to implement changes in programming, messaging, and marketing.

Some of the biggest job growth in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, came in just four sectors that account for nearly two-fifths of the nation’s economy and more than half the jobs in the U.S.: health care, retail, manufacturing, and construction. 

This will give you a glimpse of what’s unfolding: Over the last half of 2022, health-care enterprises, leisure and hospitality, education, and other sectors hit hard by staff reductions in 2022 have seen employment rebounded—but, almost across the spectrum, only because they’ve been compelled to adjust wage scales higher. Those sectors generated 1.2 million jobs over that stretch, up by nearly half over the previous 18 months, while at the same time, the tech sector has been shedding jobs by the tens of thousands.

The dilemma for colleges and universities, then, is how to sell their product to students who may be reluctant to invest tens of thousands of dollars into education for a degree that could well be outdated in several years when it’s issued.

“Without question, the top issue and challenge is student enrollment,” said Richard Linton, who became Kansas State University’s president last summer amid a 20 percent decline in enrollment over the previous eight years. In response, K-State has adopted a new tuition model that provides in-state tuition to students that have an unweighted GPA of at least 3.9, with the benefits scaling down to a 50 percent discount in the out-of-state rate for those in the 3.25 range. “With this very attractive and affordable tuition model,” Linton said, we can gain high-achieving students, help increase the numbers going to Kansas State, and help the state economy grow.”

Such innovations said Park University Provost Michelle Myers, “will need to be tied to revenue generation. For example, the expectation would be that if we meet students’ demands for flexibility and accessibility, such initiatives will lead to increased enrollments. Many of Park University’s strategic initiatives are subjected to return on investment exercises to ensure the feasibility of the investment.”

If there’s ever been a time for collaboration between business and higher education, this might be it, campus executives say.

“I will say that’s more on us in higher education, but business has clearly been communicating with us for some time about what they need in the skill set from graduates,” said Barb Bichelmeyer, provost at the University of Kansas. “What we perhaps have not done as well as we now need to do is make linkages to a changing curriculum so we can make very explicit the cognitive skills that students need and line up to higher paying jobs.”