North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun said on Tuesday that the land­scape of higher edu­ca­tion is moving from a teacher-​​centered approach to a learner-​​centered approach, a shift that presents both chal­lenges and tremen­dous oppor­tu­ni­ties for inno­va­tion and experimentation.

Com­ple­menting this shift, Aoun noted, is that 85 per­cent of today’s higher edu­ca­tion stu­dents com­prise “non­tra­di­tional learners,” including part-​​time stu­dents, working pro­fes­sionals, and off-​​campus residents.

The role of non­tra­di­tional learners is going to force us to think dif­fer­ently,” said Aoun as he spoke at a standing room-​​only event at the his­toric National Press Club in Wash­ington, D.C. on Tuesday. He stressed the need for col­leges to adapt to their stu­dents’ needs as well as rethink how they pre­pare grad­u­ates to suc­ceed in the global workforce.

In an effort to better under­stand these changing dynamics across industry and acad­emia, North­eastern released the find­ings of national poll of the Amer­ican public and hiring decision-​​makers on where they believe inno­va­tion in higher edu­ca­tion is headed and what it will take to better pre­pare grad­u­ates for the work­force across a global landscape.

The second annual event in the nation’s cap­ital focused on many of the crit­ical issues facing higher edu­ca­tion and revealed by the survey find­ings. Titled, Inno­va­tion Imper­a­tive: Enhancing Higher Edu­ca­tion Out­comes, the dis­cus­sion was mod­er­ated by Catherine Ram­pell, eco­nomics reporter of The New York Times and included Mitchell Daniels, pres­i­dent of Purdue Uni­ver­sity and former gov­ernor of Indiana, as well as James Kvaal, deputy director for domestic policy at the White House; Jeff Wilcox, cor­po­rate vice pres­i­dent for engi­neering at Lock­heed Martin Cor­po­ra­tion; and Deb­orah L. Wince-​​​​Smith, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Council on Competitiveness.

President Joseph E. Aoun delivered the keynote address at Tuesday's summit on focused on issues critical to higher education.

Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun deliv­ered the keynote address at Tuesday’s summit on focused on issues crit­ical to higher education.

The dis­cus­sion focused on a range of topics, from the impor­tance of both STEM and lib­eral arts edu­ca­tion to the impor­tance of expe­ri­en­tial learning pro­grams for stu­dents that link class­room edu­ca­tion with real-​​world pro­fes­sional expe­ri­ence. On how to effec­tively mea­sure the value of higher edu­ca­tion, Kvaal pointed to the Obama administration’s new “col­lege score­card” rating system designed to pro­vide fam­i­lies with more infor­ma­tion about col­lege costs and out­comes. He said col­leges must be rewarded “for deliv­ering good values for stu­dents, enrolling stu­dents from all types of back­grounds, and con­tin­u­ally improving and innovating.”

Acknowl­edging that insti­tu­tions are often penal­ized by third-​​party rank­ings for taking bold actions, Kvaal argued that we have to find new ways to eval­uate the mis­sion of col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties and reward those who pro­vide a better quality edu­ca­tion at a lower cost.

The survey find­ings also pro­vide a wake-​​​​up call for leaders of col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties on the impor­tant issue of higher edu­ca­tion out­comes. According to the find­ings, almost two-​​​​thirds (62 per­cent) of Amer­i­cans say that the higher edu­ca­tion system is doing a “fair” or “poor” job of preparing recent col­lege grad­u­ates for the work­force. Con­sis­tent with last year’s find­ings, a majority of Amer­i­cans also believe that higher edu­ca­tion remains crit­ical to the nation’s com­pet­i­tive­ness and must inno­vate in order for the U.S. to main­tain its global leadership.

Too many Amer­i­cans do not have the level of edu­ca­tion and skill needed to thrive in this economy and drive the next gen­er­a­tion of entre­pre­neur­ship on which we as a nation have built so much value,” Wince-​​Smith said. “So this is a real reflec­tion point for all Amer­i­cans. We need to out-​​innovate if we’re going to out-​​compete.”

One key to increasing global com­pet­i­tive­ness, the pan­elists agreed, is edu­cating more stu­dents in sci­ence, tech­nology, engi­neering, and math—known as the STEM fields. Daniels said demand for engi­neering grad­u­ates is growing, noting that, “The market is starting to respond. … We don’t think it’s a short-​​term phenomenon.”

Echoing the survey find­ings, the group also vouched for the value of a well-​​rounded knowl­edge base as a pre­req­ui­site for career suc­cess. Noting that “engi­neers are not great sto­ry­tellers,” Wilcox, an engi­neer him­self, acknowl­edged that while STEM grad­u­ates are crit­ical to strength­ening the economy there are skills such as writing, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and public speaking that are just as impor­tant for a well-​​rounded pro­fes­sional as industry-​​specific expertise.

The panel dis­cus­sion often piv­oted back to the results of the survey, which found that the majority of Amer­i­cans believe a col­lege degree is more impor­tant today than for their par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion. The survey also showed that Amer­i­cans res­olutely believe in the impor­tance of expe­ri­en­tial edu­ca­tion for long-​​term career suc­cess. This finding aligns with Northeastern’s com­mit­ment to expe­ri­en­tial learning, as stu­dents pursue co-​​op, research, study abroad, and other oppor­tu­ni­ties in 93 coun­tries worldwide.

There was also a con­sensus in the survey among Amer­i­cans and busi­ness leaders that mas­sive online open courses, also known as MOOCs, will fun­da­men­tally trans­form the way stu­dents are edu­cated, but less than one-​​third believes MOOCs pro­vide the same quality of edu­ca­tion as tra­di­tional, in-​​person courses. Mean­while, Amer­i­cans and busi­ness leaders see a shared respon­si­bility across higher edu­ca­tion, industry, and the indi­vid­uals them­selves in preparing grad­u­ates for success.