05/09/2012 05:14 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2012

Graduate Schools, Business Need to Work Together More Closely Than Ever Before -- or the U.S. Economy May Be in Trouble

More Americans are enrolled in graduate school than ever before. But this encouraging trend is tempered by the reality that we aren't prepared as a nation to tap the knowledge and talent of all those who are enrolling.

Economists project that some 2.6 million replacement jobs between 2010 and 2020 will require education levels beyond a bachelor's degree -- an increase of 22 percent for master's degrees and nearly that much for doctoral, law and medical degrees.

Yet too many students who start master's and doctoral degree programs do not graduate. Worse, even those who do finish often have little direction on the types of careers they can pursue -- and that the nation needs them to find.

Case in point: North Carolina.

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., revealed at a policy forum on April 19 on Capitol Hill that high-tech companies in her home state -- which has an unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent -- have reported an inability to fill job openings because they can't find enough highly skilled workers with advanced degrees. And this is in Raleigh-Durham, one of the more educated and fast-growing metropolitan areas of the country.

That's why our two nonprofit organizations, the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service, convened a top-notch commission of graduate school deans, business executives, nonprofit leaders and others two years ago to recommend important changes for graduate education.

Already, The Path Forward report (2010) has shone a spotlight on this issue, and graduate schools around the country now track completion and implement a host of reforms designed to increase student success. These new graduates are leading the way in scientific discovery, technological innovation and as leaders in other fields.

On April 19, a second commission chaired by Patrick Osmer, vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the Graduate School at The Ohio State University, released a new important national report: Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers. It urges graduate schools to reach out well beyond the borders of campuses and into corporations, government and the nonprofit sectors to facilitate and illuminate careers that graduates follow.

About 200 members of Congress, congressional advisers and leaders in higher education and business gathered on Capitol Hill to hear the Commission discuss its recommendations.

U.S. Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., told the audience: "The people you are producing are the future of the middle class." (Yes, with Sen. Hagan, both sides of the aisle agree on this priority.)

To address these leaders' concerns, the Commission made many recommendations, based on data culled from those who take the GRE test. Among them:

Universities can build stronger relationships with K-12 schools, community colleges and four-year institutions to encourage more students to pursue college and graduate degrees. Students need much better career counseling to lead them to the growing array of careers available for advanced-degree holders.

Institutions also need to collect and analyze better data on career outcomes and job placement for students who complete advanced degrees, connect students with graduate alumni and broaden the focus of graduate school to include professional skills most workplaces now demand.

Employers need to enhance and expand collaborative relationships with graduate programs, make strategic investments in graduate programs, provide more workplace opportunities for graduate students and faculty and better support employees to pursue graduate studies.

Policymakers should direct federal government agencies to start a Professional Plus program for graduate students on research assistantships. The government also needs to increase support for graduate education, including the COMPETES doctoral traineeship program, which would secure funding for universities to support doctoral students in key areas of national need.

The president should create an advisory commission of business and graduate education leaders to support workforce priorities and new career paths in key areas of national priorities.

This critical conversation on the future of graduate education and how to bolster its links to our economy and national needs could not come at a better time.

To stay competitive globally, we need to out-innovate, out-create and out-think the rest of the world. Our graduate schools are where high-potential people join with talented faculty to accomplish precisely these things.

The U.S. is a nation with a range of impressive, varying talents, but we must find a way to continue tapping these talents if we hope to remain an international leader. Strengthening graduate education by closing the gap between advanced degree programs is a clear pathway to economic and social prosperity for our nation.