People

The Mismatch Between High Tech and Higher Ed

September 24, 2017

W. Richard Scott
Silicon Valley and the surrounding San Francisco Bay area have flourished in cycles over the past several decades, thanks to companies involved in defense, computing, the internet, and now social media. But those economic booms have occurred despite large and small mismatches with higher education in the region, say the authors of Higher Education and Silicon Valley: Connected but Conflicted (Johns Hopkins University Press).

W. Richard Scott, an emeritus professor of sociology at Stanford University, and Michael W. Kirst, an emeritus professor of education at Stanford and president of the California State Board of Education, along with several colleagues from the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, analyze relations between higher education and industry in the region from 1970 on.

They consider not only public and private nonprofit degree-granting institutions but also research institutes and laboratories, for-profit colleges, and the in-house institutes where corporations increasingly train their own staff.

Considering all those types of institutions over the course of almost 50 years is warranted, they say, because they all affect the region’s business ecology — some through important advances in research, and many others because they "provide vital human resources to sustain the development of industry."

At a time when industry in and around Silicon Valley values what job applicants can do right away, versus what credentials they may hold, higher-education institutions struggle to provide timely training in skills, the authors write.

That’s often far from the institutions’ fault, they say. At the state-run four- and two-year colleges that serve the bulk of students, demand far outstrips enrollment because state and federal support are insufficient. One has to wonder why, Mr. Scott says in an interview: "Those are solvable problems; there ought to be a way."

But some "mismatches" between the higher-education and industry sectors are probably inherent, he says. That is clearly the case when "many of the community colleges have been urged to pressure their students into vocational-training programs" and try to do so. Then "the students rebel and say, ‘No, no, I want to get a liberal-arts degree.’ "

Too often, business leaders don’t understand that channeling students into particular fields may not be in the students’ best interests, he says. Generally, in fact, business leaders have failed to appreciate, and speak up about, the challenges that higher education faces.

But then there’s "an absence of leadership on both the industry and higher-education side."

Also blocking more-efficient coordination between industry and higher education, he says, is that for-profit companies and corporate-training institutes decline to provide data about what they are doing. Such institutions accounted for almost half of the 375 institutions he and his colleagues considered, and yet "we know almost nothing about the evolution of the postsecondary private system."

He argues that policy makers should institute stricter reporting requirements and should "do more than simply treat these organizations like they were restaurants or barber shops, so they would provide some real information about the quality of work they are doing." The institutions should at least be required to show, he suggests, "that they are not doing harm."

Peter Monaghan is a national correspondent for The Chronicle. Email him at pmonaghan3@mac.com.