04/03/2013 10:32 am ET Updated Jun 03, 2013

Preparing Millennials for the 21st Century Economy

Higher education in America faces unprecedented challenges, as students, parents, and a growing number of people in the business and education communities are asking: "Is college really worth it?"

As a university president, I take this broad-based skepticism to heart; but I strongly believe that higher education can continue to play a pivotal role in our economy and society -- if the education focuses on preparing the Millenial generation to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

If we do our part, students will leave our campuses as curious, thoughtful, ethical and responsible lifelong learners. And they will graduate with market-driven skills to gain employment, build a career, and contribute to their organizations and communities in significant ways.

The Millennial World

This blend of broad-based learning and professional skill development is exactly what the practical Millennials tell us they want to get out of their college education. Research that we conducted recently also shows that this young cohort -- America's future -- wants to live an integrated life that combines the personal and the professional, as opposed to trading off these two vitally important aspects of adulthood. Indeed, 76 percent of the women and 73 percent of the men we surveyed say they're not willing to compromise their family and personal values.

As educators, we are responsible for preparing this generation -- America's future -- to not only take on the realities of an ever-changing global community, but to make a profound impact upon it. Fulfilling this promise requires change. It requires that we look across disciplines and practices and adapt our models to meet the complex needs of today's economy.

The Carnegie Foundation focused on this in its book Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession where it highlighted several institutions, including Bentley University, Santa Clara and others, for the innovative ways their curriculum integrates business and the liberal arts.

Millennials need comprehensive academic and professional experiences that foster innovation, community engagement and, ultimately, the skills to competitively participate in the global marketplace. While there are strong curricular models that attempt to do just this, there is still more room for cooperative learning between institutions. In these models we do see several key components that hold promise -- a fusion of academic disciplines, technology integration, hands-on learning and sustained career focus will all prove critical in framing the future of higher education.

Integrated Academics

An integrated curriculum -- developed through collaboration between faculty in different disciplines -- breaks down walls between departments and encourages innovation. At Bentley, we've implemented such a model through the "fusion" of our liberal arts and business programs. Students major or minor in business while simultaneously enrolling in a core of liberal arts courses that focus on expanding and inspiring traditional "business" thinking, writing, creativity, and reasoning.

This integration is desperately needed because many of today's emerging job opportunities -- in areas such as health care, energy, sustainability, analytics and public policy -- require a more sophisticated type of thinking. For instance, a media major with a concentration in finance could be the person who launches the next Google, Apple, Pixar or Twitter. Future opportunity is located at the intersection of business, technology and the arts.

Our world is built on technology, and students need access to high-tech learning labs, leading-edge software, and the guidance to understand it. They should also be exposed to the world of global language systems, data analytics, video editing, mobile apps, and financial trading. We must employ digital tools to help prepare our students, so they can add value on day one of their post-college lives.

If my colleagues in higher education are committed to preparing students for the professional world, nothing teaches them faster or better than practical, hands-on experience gained through internships, corporate immersion and service-learning. All students need to engage deeply in problem solving and innovation. Such knowledge and experience can't be adequately conveyed in a traditional classroom setting. Eventually this type of connectivity leads to meaningful relationships that direct students to future jobs and life-long mentors.

Not only do students need this type of experiential learning in their chosen field, they also need an integrated career plan that takes them from their first day of college to the first day of their professional life or graduate school. To help them bridge these worlds, we need to revolutionize the campus-to-career transition. We need to prepare students throughout their college experience, not just as they prepare to leave campus. By the time they graduate, students should have received four years of focused career guidance and developed a customized action plan that will enable a smooth transition to the professional world -- one that provides a strong foundation for long-term growth in their career and life.

We also need to measure outcomes and improve placements. And while all colleges and universities need to focus on inputs, such as SATs and grades, it is just as vital to emphasize outcomes, such as retention rates, job placement, graduation rates, graduate school acceptance, internships and our students' ability to pay back debt. These are proven qualifiers of an education's worth.

Much work needs to be done to meet the rising pressure facing higher education. I am, however, optimistic that these challenges are within reach. And, these challenges should not force a defensive stance -- they should serve as a call to action. It's time for those in higher education who teach innovation to innovate for the benefit of the Millennial generation. Together, we can ensure that the strong tradition of American higher education remains vibrant well beyond the 21st century.