North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun said on Tuesday morning that the higher edu­ca­tion com­mu­nity received a big wake-​​up call during the Great Reces­sion of 2008, when many grad­u­ates ques­tioned the value of their col­lege investment.

Col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, Aoun noted, real­ized they could no longer exist in a vacuum; rather, they must be in tune with the world and equip stu­dents with the toolkit nec­es­sary to under­stand industry needs, adapt in their careers, be entre­pre­neurial, and chart their paths to pro­fes­sional success.

Ulti­mately, we have to pre­pare our stu­dents for not just their first jobs but for life,” Aoun said during a panel dis­cus­sion fea­turing CEOs and thought leaders.

Titled Inno­va­tion Imper­a­tive: Enhancing the Talent Pipeline, the dis­cus­sion was held at the Inter­con­ti­nental Hotel in Boston and mod­er­ated by Kara Miller, host and exec­u­tive editor of Inno­va­tion Hub on WGBH. The panel com­prised Aoun; Gary Got­tlieb, pres­i­dent and CEO of Part­ners Health­care; and Jeff Selingo, con­tributing editor to The Chron­icle of Higher Edu­ca­tion. The event—hosted in part­ner­ship with WGBH and The New Eng­land Council—focused on the rela­tion­ship today between higher edu­ca­tion and industry, and how CEOs and C-​​Suite exec­u­tives view the readi­ness of col­lege graduates.

In con­junc­tion with the event, North­eastern on Tuesday released the find­ings of its third national poll focused on better under­standing the changing dynamics across industry and acad­emia. The new poll sur­veyed U.S. C-​​Suite exec­u­tives on global com­pet­i­tive­ness, employee skills gap, higher edu­ca­tion out­comes, and sug­ges­tions for policy reform. It revealed a con­cern among busi­ness leaders about the pipeline of talent pro­duced by Amer­ican col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties. While most exec­u­tives express sup­port for the Amer­ican higher edu­ca­tion system, they also believe that the U.S. is falling behind global com­peti­tors and inad­e­quately preparing grad­u­ates to suc­ceed in the modern workplace.

Panelists discussed the relationship today between higher education and industry, and how CEOs and C-Suite executives view the readiness of college graduates. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Pan­elists dis­cussed the rela­tion­ship today between higher edu­ca­tion and industry, and how CEOs and C-​​Suite exec­u­tives view the readi­ness of col­lege grad­u­ates. Photo by Mariah Tauger.

Tuesday’s summit was the first of Northeastern’s series to be held in Boston; the pre­vious two sum­mits took place in Wash­ington, D.C. Northeastern’s first survey, in 2012, focused on the opin­ions of recent grad­u­ates; the second survey, released last year, focused on hiring-​​decision makers.

The latest survey high­lights a con­cern among C-​​Suite exec­u­tives about the notion of an employee “skills gap.” Nation­ally, 73 per­cent of busi­ness leaders say there is a skills gap among today’s work­force, and an even greater number (87 per­cent) believe that today’s col­lege grad­u­ates lack the nec­es­sary skills to succeed.

During Tuesday’s panel dis­cus­sion, Got­tlieb noted that industry leaders must do a better job expressing their expec­ta­tions and needs to col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties so grad­u­ates can be better pre­pared for the workforce.

We have, as employers, not done the greatest job informing higher edu­ca­tion as to what our needs are and cre­ating clear path­ways and part­ner­ships to iden­tify the spe­cific skills we need now, and the skills we are pro­jecting we will need in the future,” Got­tlieb said.

Aoun noted that one way to help close the skills gap—and impart to grad­u­ates the com­mu­ni­ca­tion, social, and team­work skills desired by busi­ness executives—is to inte­grate class­room learning with pro­fes­sional expe­ri­ence. It’s crit­ical that work expe­ri­ence be inte­grated with the class­room expe­ri­ence, he added, saying that, “Through that, you not only learn job skills, but also social skills.”

In fact, the survey also found that a majority of C-​​Suite exec­u­tives (97 per­cent) believe that col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties should expand oppor­tu­ni­ties for expe­ri­en­tial learning—a finding that aligned with prior polling results.

In his remarks, Selingo ques­tioned why more insti­tu­tions do not follow Northeastern’s co-​​op model, which com­bines rig­orous class­room learning with real world work expe­ri­ence. But he also won­dered whether economies would suffer if more schools devel­oped sim­ilar programs.

You have to give these stu­dents real expe­ri­ences,” Selingo said. “But it wor­ries me that these intern­ships and co-​​ops might be taking place of full-​​time jobs.”

During a Q-​​and-​​A fol­lowing the panel dis­cus­sion, the experts were asked if higher edu­ca­tion would be part of the Amer­ican dream in the future. Aoun responded, noting that pri­va­tizing public higher edu­ca­tion could go a long way to ensuring its longevity.

Now we are seeing a nation­wide race by public higher edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tions to chase the paying stu­dents from other states and inter­na­tion­ally,” he said. “That is typ­i­cally what pri­vate insti­tu­tions have done. And even­tu­ally the tax­payer is going to ques­tion why they are sup­porting public higher edu­ca­tion when their chil­dren don’t an oppor­tu­nity to get into the college.”