Troy Markowitz, Portfolium

Part 2 of our interview with Troy Markowitz, VP of Partnerships at Portfolium. This interview is the first in our series with thought leaders focused on career preparation and readiness. Part 1 of the interview is available here.

Geoff Roberts: Troy, you’ve written about what you call Student Success 3.0, a key component of which is the idea that graduation is no longer the last step in a learner’s journey – employability from day one is. Best of all, this is a measurable and provable outcome. With higher ed institutions already publishing data like the employment rates and the average salary for their graduates six months after graduation, why haven’t students created more demand for universities to to help them deliver on the assessment and career readiness components of Student Success 3.0?

Troy Markowitz: It’s a good question. I think the economy has demanded for it, I think employers have demanded for it. Like I said before, there’s a lens on this more than ever. We need these skills and students are still having a hard time with this catch 22 of “I have a resume to get experience but I don’t have experience.” And I do think that this is being demanded by students. There’s a study by UCLA that says that over 91% of students go to college to get a good career. Then there’s students that don’t want a career right away, they want to pursue an advanced degree or other credentials, which is fine. I don’t think that students are thinking about this much until maybe senior year. And they don’t know what they don’t know. You can’t have demand for something that you’re just unaware of. We tend to procrastinate as students where we’re just worried about where we’re going to live, our roommate situation, or getting the right courses and classes for our degree requirements. Students are myopically set on that first.

I think there needs to be a more proactive approach from the administrators, from the schools. We put a lot of onus on to the students; over 48% of job postings students are unaware of. They don’t know that they are a good fit. They don’t know the skills required to get the job. They don’t know the skills they are acquiring through an internship program or experiential learning. I think schools are doing a better job of that now but I think the more you put in front of students the more demand you’ll have, and the more alignment you’ll have inevitably as well. It’s more about proactivity and not waiting for the students to come and have to demand it. Students rely on the universities, the administrators, for that connection. They pay tuition. They graduate with debt. They don’t want to become under or unemployed and need that support.

“Students are still having a hard time with this catch 22 of “I have a resume to get experience but I don’t have experience.”

Geoff: Many educators are uncomfortable with the idea of evolving the focus on post secondary education, feeling that it questions the value of a liberal arts education and could turn higher education into a more transactional experience focused on landing a job. Personally, I received both a liberal arts education as an undergrad (English major) and a graduate degree in business (MBA). In either case, I felt that neither school was particularly focused on helping me find employment. Beyond that, I felt that neither was terribly helpful in teaching me real world, specific skills that I’d actually use in the workplace. To me, what my education did more than anything else was teach me to think critically, teach me to learn. I’m sure you’ve heard that sentiment before – what’s your reaction to it?

Troy: Someone could easily combat some of the things that I write about by saying, “What happened to the joy of learning?” I would say that we don’t have that luxury anymore because of the cost of school now. With economy that we live in and the type of technological change we’re going through being as fast paced as ever, you can learn anything you want now on your phone. We have our phones with us at all times, so I can learn how to do anything. I can take free courses, I can gain project management or converting strategy into execution as a skill that I know that Accenture is looking for to become a management consultant. Maybe it’s not as clear cut at the university, but you’re right you can learn transferable skills to learn and apply. So I would say that I’m not befouling the joy of learning at all.

I look back at my personal experience as well and although I didn’t have the connection of skills that I was acquiring, it’s what the students make of it. We do have to put onus on the student, it can’t just be up to the universities and administrators and specialty resources. But it is the university’s job to understand the buyer and the buyer is the student and the buyer wants a job and a good career. If a school doesn’t want to become a trade school then there needs to be a fine balance between EDU and the workforce.

It’s about showing evidence of a skill you claim to have that’s congruent to the job you’re looking for. That’s what employers are trying to do. If I’m interviewing someone I’m just trying to figure out if they could do the job that I would like them to do, or at least have the passion to do it and the wherewithal to be able to be coached accordingly. Students don’t have to have congruent experience from their education to map to my needs for them to be hired.

I can see a lot more with the three dimensional e-portfolio than I can on a resume. The average e-portfolio has over 5000 data points, the resume doesn’t have that much. So you have entry level talent being thrown out of applicant tracking systems that actually matched the needs but they didn’t have the right keywords on their resume because of their lack of work experience. To me that’s not a fair way to hire, a lot of students go overlooked and graduate under or over employed. So this is a better way to recruit in the sense that if you look at the data 45% of students don’t even use their major in terms of looking for a job. A lot of the students don’t even need to go to school to get the job that they got and that just keeps increasing. So we’re putting this lens that there is value to the degree across multiple majors and a resume doesn’t encompass or encapsulate anyone’s abilities or skill set in the right way – especially entry level talent, this is specific to entry level talent. Meaning if I look at your resume I can most likely ascertain the skills you have by the places you’ve worked and the previous titles you’ve held. But for students you can’t do that putting them at a huge disadvantage.

“But it is the university’s job to understand the buyer and the buyer is the student and the buyer wants a job and a good career.”

Geoff: Aside from better skill mapping and closing the awareness gap, are their other promising or exciting developments that you see in higher ed that have the potential to improve outcomes and student success?

Troy: Well student success programs have been talked about for a long time. The article that you mentioned “The Convergence of Assessment, Student Success, and Career Readiness” is an interesting topic because traditionally student success can mean a lot. You hear a lot about graduation and retention rates, making sure students graduate and aren’t just taking on a lot of debt and then not graduating. Learning through data and predictive analytics can help with that. That’s the thing that I see that’s extremely progressive, but it’s very challenging to bring this up in front of faculty members on the academic side. When you start bringing up skills and employment, you can have some backlash there.

It’s about the approach, and we at Portfolium have found a good empathetic approach is to point out that schools are already calculating these skills without even knowing it. It’s not just awareness unbeknownst to the students of them acquiring skills, but it’s empowerment of the faculty. Just because you’re teaching philosophy doesn’t mean you’re not teaching applicable skills to the workforce. Critical thinking and problem solving and leadership and teamwork – these are all skills that employers are seeking. So if they’re already measuring the curriculum for the measurement of learning, for learning outcomes, for accreditation requirements, there’s an extra layer of skills that are there and it’s just a matter of tagging and verifying and surfacing them. All we’re doing is tapping into existing data sets.

“Just because you’re teaching philosophy doesn’t mean you’re not teaching applicable skills to the workforce.”

If we zoom out it’s proving value to a degree. It’s about showing employers that students are acquiring skills that you just can’t see by simply looking at their resume and asking about their experience. The experience comes from the university, even if it comes from co-curriculars. Princeton just wrote a blog emphasizing that employers are interested in what students do outside the classroom just as much as inside, which is true. It encapsulates the individual’s experiences and therefore provides more of a unique approach and lens into who that student is.

Going back to student success, adding in the career readiness element is important and should start day one on campus. A freshman might be purely interested in “What am I going to major in?” and less about “What am I going to do when I grow up?” but they should be thinking about it at least, they should be exploring and leveraging technology and a network. It’s good to see people who are in the major that you’re looking to pursue, to see a day in the life of someone and the skills they’ve acquired and the projects they’ve worked on. Maybe even where they are working now – “Hey that’s interesting, he majored in English and now he owns his own marketing company.”

Geoff: Absolutely – ironically enough, my parents actually bought me a book titled “What Can I Do With A Major In English?” when I was in college, so that resonates. Let’s switch gears a little bit now; I’d love to get your take on what I think most people feel is the biggest issue facing higher education today. 68% of students graduate with debt – $37,000 in debt on average – and 11% of them default on their loans. To me, this very much forces the issue that employability at the appropriate level must be a priority for students – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In your travels through the world of higher ed, what ideas do you think show the most promise in helping to address the cost and affordability of higher education?

Troy: I think it starts with just increasing a student’s awareness of what they can do. There’s a lot of students that aren’t sure about what classes to take based on the major they’re interested in pursuing, or they don’t know what they want to do when they graduate, so there’s just a lot of unknowns. I think if universities had more career exploration, refining a student’s journey and narrowing in a little bit it would limit their time at the university and they’d accumulate that much less debt. Students shouldn’t need to go back and major in management information systems because they majored in English and they feel like they need that additional major to be competitive if they want to work in a tech company.

A lot of schools are doing a much better job at having predictive analytics that essentially send out distress signals, where if a freshman gets a “C” in Poli Sci, the school knows the average span of time it’s going to take them to graduate. Maybe it’s five or six years – then a guidance counsellor can proactively engage.

It would help widen the scope a little more too. Not to say that students shouldn’t go to college, but there’s also a lot of other sources out there where students can achieve an education skill without going to get a traditional degree. Some students are taking online programs, they’re supplementing their education or they’re stacking their credentials, they’re achieving badges that are more specialized that match employers’ needs. So there are a lot of options for students to take and if guided appropriately I think that they will inevitably limit the debt that they accumulate. Also looking at the all the scholarships that they could pursue. Inevitably we have to think about the debt that students are accumulating and not just the fact that they’re becoming educated. And hopefully they’re going to learn how to apply what has been learned.

Like I said, the economy is unforgiving if you don’t have the skills necessary. Employers right now are looking past GPAs as an indicator of job performance. They’re hiring holistically which means they’re not just hiring out of those top of 50 universities anymore, which is a good thing. Students now have a chance to stand out at a school that’s not top rated and employers can find hidden talent. But it does come down to the students as well. It’s not this lens on the university only, or employers – it also comes down to the students and educating them on their options.


Geoff: Competency based educational models are growing in popularity – what’s your take on CBE, and what are the advantages/disadvantages you think this model offers over traditional course based educational models?

Troy: I think there’s not an evergreen approach to, “Let’s compare a CBE program to a traditional one,” because I’ve seen a lot of CBE programs that don’t take input from employers. So the question becomes where are these competencies coming from? I see some CBE programs that have a consortium of employers that they work with across multiple industries, and they’ll ask, “What skills do you need?” They’ll take these skills – maybe it’s Angular.JS for a computer science program – and then they’re able to say that this skill is needed for a front developer to get hired and it’s not being taught in the computer science program at your school. You should probably be teaching this skill in hopes that students can leverage it to get hired.

I think CBE shouldn’t be as much of a hot topic as it as it is. I think that if there is a need from the student or from the employer then we should probably massage that need. But it doesn’t have to become where skills are the only output of taking a course. Like you said, the joy of learning can still be there. If I take an English Literature course, it doesn’t have to be congruent to a job that I can get at EMC. Some people say, “You know we’re not here at the university or the college to reverse engineer a job at EMC and you can get an EMC degree here.” That’s not the point. So I don’t think CBE programs are trying to remove that element but if we can inculcate needs of the workforce, of the employers, of the economy then that’s a good thing. If we can help students become better prepared or increase their probability or chances of paying back their debt then I think that needs to be considered. But alongside, there is still the joy to learning.

I think you can start small and aim big – a lot of times scaling CBE is daunting. Where do the skills come from and how do you tag courses and projects at a granular level with the skills students are going to acquire from them? I’m a proponent of CBE, I don’t think there is much to argue against but there’s a fine balance like I said.

Geoff: That’s all we have for you today – tons of good insights here. Thanks, Troy!

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