The Failure of Universities

Updated: April 30, 2009

In the coming weeks, young and hopeful IT undergraduates will be heading for the work force with crisp diplomas. But after an average of 16 years of education, many students may still find they're not yet qualified for their desired jobs.

Many IT students new to the work force learn that they have to start in low-level positions, providing phone support or starting as desktop technicians. They still need to complete internships, industry-certification classes or spend a few years living on small paychecks and gaining professional experience before they can advance in their career field.

Universities are doing an enormous disservice to students, said Nick Corcodilos, host of AsktheHeadhunter.com , who started headhunting for tech firms in Silicon Valley in 1979. "I'm a huge fan of college," he said, "but colleges are very theoretical and do a miserable job preparing students."

"In America there's a big focus on teaching education for its own sake," he continued. This comes at the expense of practical, hands-on experience, he said.

Some college grads are finding that in order to succeed, they need more hands-on academic training, such as the industry-based certification classes offered at the junior colleges. This is especially the case for networking , hardware and OS curriculum, according to instructor Tim Billy, who teaches A+ Hardware and A+ Operating Systems at Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville, Pa.

"I have had four students in the last year who had a B.S. in computer science from various universities," said Billy. "What they all said was that college IT programs emphasize theory without hands-on experience in the areas of networking, hardware and operating systems. Especially networking."

Billy added that in his current and prior semester he has a total of 67 students. Most of them are over 30 and either pursuing a second career or a specific opportunity within their current career path.

But not all industry-based certification classes offer the experience college grads need. Corcodilos said he took a Novell Inc. program once to see what it was about, and found it was just as academic as a university degree program. "The certification makes light bulbs go off, but in the real world, you still couldn't fix the problem," he said.

"The class gives them background," he continued, "but is usually not what will get them hired. Certifications will get them an interview but experience rules in IT."

Schools with a commercial bent, such as the University of Phoenix , do a better job of addressing the needs of industry, claimed Corcodilos. These schools target people who are already working and want to get ahead, so the classes focus on applied learning. Some of these private schools have targeted job-placement programs that are lacking at the mainstream universities. Corcodilos said that universities with ties to industry or continuing-education programs also tend to offer more practical training for their students, even undergraduates.

However, Billy said that he has found that experience is more important to success than having a degree or certification. Still, he noted, workers without the education to back up their experience can face roadblocks to advancement as well. As an example, Billy described a former student who received IT training in the army, found a tech job after his discharge and now administers networks with UNIX , Linux and Microsoft Windows Network Operating Systems . "My first question to him was, ‘What are you doing in my class?'" Billy said. "He said he needed his associate's degree in order to advance and the class was required."

Industry and Education Can't Collaborate

Though there has been some change in the past 10 years, Cocordilos said that "industry and education are struggling to work more closely together."

He suggested that academia could serve students better by incorporating real-world lessons. "Every course you provide should have one class period to bring someone in who uses that knowledge to get a job done," he said. "That would help students think about using learning in practical ways."

But Linda Hernandez, the Assistant Director of Counseling at the University of California at Berkeley Career Center , said that professors don't want industry representatives in their classrooms. "They want to focus on educating students, and they don't want the industry interfering with that," she said.

Hernandez added that there are other ways UC Berkeley works with the industry to help students connect with professionals. "Lots of faculty consult with companies to review their curriculum periodically," she said. "We get input from them - but not within the classroom."

Professors may be hesitant to allow private companies into their classrooms because they fear that guests will have a bias or a marketing message to sell to students. Additionally, they only have a limited time to cover a certain amount of subject material, and don't want to cut out valuable lessons.

Corcodilos suggested that students would benefit from working on real-world case studies in class, instead of having internships outside of the university. Industry professionals could help shape the assignment, and then provide a professional evaluation of students' work on completion. Professors would still get to teach their material and supervise students' work. The lessons would then combine a theoretical academic background with a practical, professional approach to problem solving.

According to Billy, the four-year degree programs are generally more resistant to change than the two-year schools. He suggested that four-year university programs could benefit by adding on additional lab courses. "I doubt if people on that level feel any urgency to do this," he added.

Hernandez said she believes most UC Berkeley grads are well-prepared for technical jobs. "We haven't seen any alumni come back saying they have trouble transitioning [into the workforce]," she said.

Developing Students' Soft Skills

Even though students don't have access to industry representatives within the classroom, Hernandez said they do have opportunities to speak with professionals at job fairs, mock interviews with employers and with returning alumni who have experience in the work force.

She added that students can be intimidated when approaching potential employers for the first time. Some tech and engineering students might be lacking in communication skills, she said. "They don't have as much opportunity to develop them, and employers want people who can talk and write well," she said.

A Microsoft Corp. spokesperson confirmed the importance of basic soft skills in hiring decisions. When asked if Microsoft was hiring new grads, or whether the company believes colleges are adequately preparing students, he said Microsoft hires people with a wide variety of skill sets.

Additionally, the Microsoft spokesperson stated that the business focuses especially on candidates' passion to make an impact and innovate; their commitment to the job and training ; and their ability to collaborate to solve problems. These qualifications aren't easy to measure on a standardized academic test — but can be learned through experience.

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