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A safe bet for turning a college degree into a job

June 6, 2014 at 12:48 PM ET

When word first got out that Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, was planning to build two degree programs specializing in big data analytics, vice provost of undergraduate education Donald Feke's in-box filled up with inquiries from students clamoring to get in — long before the programs were ready.

No wonder. McKinsey Global Institute predicts a shortage in the U.S. of up to almost 200,000 workers with deep analytical skills, and a deficit of 1.5 million managers capable of using big data analytics for actionable insights in their decision-making. Programs in data analytics and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, including cybersecurity, simply aren't keeping up with the demand.

Video: Discussing which businesses are recruiting college students, with Kathy Sims, UCLA career director; James Maclaren, Tulane University dean; and Geni Harclerode, University of Michigan career director.

That's why corporations are increasingly partnering with colleges and universities at an undergraduate level to help develop the 21st century skills businesses and the economy will need. For students concerned with finding employment after college, big data analytics provides a huge edge at a time of diminishing high-wage opportunities.

"Instead of just learning about theories, we'll have the actual hands-on skills to use in whatever job we take. It will make us much more marketable," said Jessica Pease, 21, who'll continue her studies in cybersecurity as a senior next year at Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo.

Raytheon had previously funded a two-year project cybersecurity lab, as well as the White Hat Club for security-minded hackers, of which Pease is president. Then last year the school announced it was establishing its Cybersecurity Center and, in January, began offering classes in conjunction with another big defense company, Northrop Grumman's Cybersecurity Lab. The lab was not only funded by Northrop but was set up and configured by one of its scientists. The company provides input to the university's development of coursework and also provides students with access to its Virtual Cyber Lab.

"Gone are the days when you fire money into a black hole and provide funding and they go off independently," said Chris Valentino, director of contract research and development at Northrop Grumman's Information and Cyber Solutions Division. The goal is not just to promote cyber-domain skills: "We're going to need people with the core engineering education that allows them to analyze a problem and develop solutions — the sophistication to create something that's going to shut down a big cyberattack."

Forging new business partnerships

At community colleges, mid-level skills-based programs tied to specific employers are not new. And private-sector companies have long played a role in university research projects. What's new are the kind of partnerships forged by Cal Poly and Northrop Grumman. (Northrop has multiple relationships with universities. With the University of Maryland, it established the nation's first undergraduate multidisciplinary residential cybersecurity honors program, and it has also partnered with San Jose State University.) 

These partnerships may be new, but they are here to stay, said educators, who expect corporate-college partnerships to become increasingly common.

As college graduates look for work, one area that's in demand is big data analytics.
Nicolaus Czarnecki / Zuma Press
As college graduates look for work, one area that's in demand is big data analytics.

The push for this kind of collaboration has come largely from the Business and Higher Education Forum (BHEF), a 36-year-old organization of business and education leaders focused on devising education-workforce solutions. It created the National Higher Education and Workforce Initiative six years ago and created 12 diverse "regional projects" around the country, pairing companies with universities. For example, IBM is working with Ohio State University and Battelle Memorial Institute, as well as the City University of New York; the Milwaukee Water Council has joined up with the University of Wisconsin System. Other programs involve finance, energy, advanced manufacturing, logistics and other fields.

"The thing about data science is that it's really transdisciplinary, with important applications in every industry," said Brian Fitzgerald, BHEF's CEO. "While the academic training is happening at the graduate level, there was zero focus on undergraduate education. If we have to rely just on Ph.D.s to do this work, then our nation's companies will die."

While there may be a bit of grumbling from those wary of corporations exerting undue influence on higher education, schools have enthusiastically welcomed the help. According to a Pew Research Center report released in May, state funding of higher education, which provides more than half of the revenue support for colleges and universities, remains below prerecession levels, with many states cutting per-student funding by more than 25 percent. As a result, average tuition at four-year public universities jumped 20 percent between 2008 and 2012, pushing student-loan debt to more than $1.2 trillion.

"We're a state-supported institution," said Amy Hewes, director of publications and communications at Cal Poly. "Our support has gone from 80 percent to less than 40 percent, so, yes, to develop the facilities crucial to our students, we need the help of public and private entities."

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