5 Barriers to a Strong Higher Education System [According to Business]

Earlier this month Colorado Succeeds hosted nearly 30 business leaders in a dynamic conversation about the future of higher education.

The topic is particularly timely as Colorado Succeeds President, Scott Laband, as well as our business members, now serve on the state’s Task Force on Student Success and Workforce Revitalization charged with creating a higher education system that better meets the needs of students, and ensures a strong pipeline of talent for employers and a thriving Colorado economy.

Through the recent conversation, business leaders elevated five key barriers they see within the system:

  1. Access to Timely and Actionable Information – Information about career pathways remains difficult to access for high school students, especially when it comes to navigating non-traditional pathways. Students need to know what jobs are available, pay rates, working conditions, and what it takes to land a position in a particular field. Students would benefit from gaining this information as early on as middle school. Educators are the most trusted messengers; however, most are unfamiliar with non-traditional pathways. It’s important to equip educators and counselors with the information they need to best support their students.  
  2. Education System Responsiveness – Higher education institutions are generally structured around preparing students for professional services careers requiring at least a bachelor’s degree. Institutions of higher education have significant room to grow in being more flexible and responsive to industries like construction and manufacturing, for example, where a postsecondary degree isn’t necessarily required.
  3. Career Readiness – Students would benefit from being exposed to more work-based and experiential learning opportunities that better prepare them for careers. Currently, employers are often investing in educating new employees on skills and concepts that should have been learned in higher education. Increasing opportunities to earn micro-credentials or essential skill certificates, industry credentials, and to participate in internships and apprenticeships would support students in being work-ready by graduation, and should be incentivized.
  4. Accountability and Alignment – Institutions of higher education are also employers, which often motivates them to increase the number of students served, but not necessarily to hold themselves accountable for degree completion or alignment to workforce needs. Systems respond to how they are measured, so reviewing the higher education funding formula to be more outcome-focused could help institutions re-think priorities and pathways. If institutions were measured, and held accountable, for how many students landed employment, how much they earned, and if they were successfully retained, the system would shift.
  5. Transferability and Stacking of Credits – The postsecondary system is often inefficient and leads to dead ends, and high costs, for students. For example, students who receive credits at a technical college are sometimes forced to take the same coursework again at the community college they now attend because the institution does not accept transferred credit. This wastes time and money for students.

In the discussion, business leaders also elevated solutions to incentivize stronger, sustained collaboration between employers and institutions of higher education. In their experience, it is important that…   

  • Employers are treated as advisors and partners. Employers set the standards for what is taught, how it is taught, and how learning is measured. They know better than anyone what is needed to succeed in roles in their industry.
  • Employers host students at their job site for both theoretical coursework and applied work. Students start to feel comfortable in the work environment and grow familiar with the terminology, values, standards of professionalism, while gaining exposure to mentors.
  • Employers can teach coursework as a paid adjunct at the institution of higher education.
  • Employers and the institution of higher education meet regularly to assess progress and effectiveness of the program, and revise it as needed.

Another approach that was elevated was to incentivize more micro-credentials that demonstrate a set of competencies that a new employee needs to be successful. Such competencies should include project management, computer skills, and professional communication skills, at a minimum. A set of micro-credentials (including industry credentials) could be identified by industry and sector and would ideally stack into degrees, as well.

Colorado Succeeds and its members will elevate these themes through the Taskforce and anticipate these ideas leading to actionable recommendations for consideration in the 2022 Legislative session.

Stay up to date on Colorado Succeeds’ participation in the Taskforce on Student Success and Workforce Revitalization by following us on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.


Vice President of Government Affairs
Colorado Succeeds