Indiana produces an abundance of college graduates from its well-respected state colleges and universities and its network of other thirty independent colleges. A historic challenge in the state has been the direct connection of these graduates to Indiana employers to retain the talent in the state as we strive to meet the goal of 60% of adults with a post-high school credential by 2025.

Both employers and students, particularly liberal arts students, report concerns about the readiness for jobs that is provided by the college experience. This was true prior to the pandemic, as concerns about the cost and value of college continued to mount, but is now more acute as the on-campus learning experience has been significantly disrupted.

Gallup and Strada have surveyed employers, students, and working adults with college degrees over the past few years. In a Gallup poll, just 10 percent of business leaders said they “strongly agreed” that undergraduates leave college with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace. In a 2017 report by Gallup and the Strada Education Network, only 28 percent of liberal arts students reported that they were confident that their degrees would lead to success in the job market, the lowest among all students surveyed. And employment data from Burning Glass and others prove them right – starting salaries of liberal arts graduates are lower than other majors. Adding to the evidence is a Strada/Gallup survey of college-educated workers where slightly over 25% responded that their education proved relevant for work and daily life. This uncertainly about the return-on-investment does not bode well for colleges in the current environment where the value is questioned even more when educational delivery is mostly virtual.

Colleges need to act quickly during the pandemic to remain relevant to both students and employers. One way to do so is to provide students with a “capstone experience” in information technology (IT) immediately prior to graduation, equipping students with a key employment skill that is highly valued by employers and with the potential to provide graduates with significantly higher wages at the time of graduation and beyond. Colleges are quickly seeing that private providers of IT skills and certifications, often delivered online or through other non-traditional means such as bootcamps, are not their competition for students but rather their route to attracting and keeping students via partnerships with their colleges.

Numerous colleges (Yale, Arcadia University, and Dominican University of California as examples) have developed partnerships or started their own coding programs and built them into their curricula. Eleven Fifty Academy in Indiana is currently working with several Indiana colleges to deliver that capstone experience and provide skills identified by Indiana employers. A traditional college capstone has been for students to study abroad, but the pandemic has shut down these experiences at the moment. The IT capstone is a high-value replacement for studying abroad, as “the world of code” provides international connections via a worldwide language. This skill has lasting value in the marketplace for the student in multiple sectors, as all sectors have dramatically increased needs for IT skills.

Indiana’s employers also have a major role to play in closing the gap between the skills acquired in college and the skills they desire. Employers are often creating and seeking to fill “hybrid jobs” that describe skill sets that have never been found in the same job description before. A 2019 Burning Glass report identified that fully one-quarter of all occupations in the U.S. show signs of hybridization, and these are the fastest growing jobs and are the jobs most resistant to automation. The hybridization often includes the combination of technical skills (such as IT) with human skills (such as critical thinking and communications). The human skills are valued by employers but often within the context of delivery of a technical product to customers. These skills are being taught, in many cases, in liberal arts programs in college but the skill sets are being described to employers in the language of liberal arts and the humanities rather than the language of business.

When initiatives such as Skillfull Indiana and Ascend work with employers to define specific skill needs and then look for matches emerging from our colleges, the specific skills employers are looking for are often available but cloaked in academic language. Indiana’s employers and colleges will need to work more closely on skills crosswalks from the classroom to jobs, and many of the private technical skill providers can also play a major role in facilitating that discussion, as they have tailored training programs to specifically address needs identified by employers. To completely close the deal in retaining college graduates, employers and colleges should collaborate to provide job exploration, part-time employment, and internships – or micro-internships, like the kind developed by Chicago-based Parker Dewey – to ensure that college students are connected to specific opportunities for employment prior to graduation.

Adding the IT Capstone can be a winning formula for all involved – students get higher income immediately, employers fill critical skills gaps, colleges increase enrollment levels, and Indiana advances as a state in higher education attainment levels and increased wage levels.