So Many Ways We Prepare Students for What Comes Next

Hardly a week passes without a new article calling for a rethinking of America's higher education system. But is such a drastic change needed?
11/02/2015 07:38 pm ET Updated Nov 01, 2016

Hardly a week passes without a new article calling for a rethinking of America's higher education system.

For example, in a recent column for the Washington Post, noted commentator Jeff Selingo worried that many colleges and universities are not aligned with the rhythms, needs and pace of the 21st-century innovation economy. However, he did highlight Lehigh University as one campus that has dramatically retooled its curriculum and even its physical infrastructure to try to prepare students for the ever-changing world of work.

But, is such a drastic change needed?

While I agree with Selingo's overall message I do not think the situation is as bleak as a reader of his column might come away believing. Rather, I know that organizations can collaborate with one another and with community partners to develop dynamic and relevant educational experiences without necessarily having to undergo radical restructuring.

For example, here in southeast Washington State, over the last several years our three local institutions of higher education and our two public school districts, Walla Walla and College Place, in partnership with our Chamber of Commerce, have created fantastic, educational and, for the winners, lucrative, events during Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) each November.

These initiatives have allowed our students to practice pitching their business, service and product ideas and get feedback in ways that help them more effectively pursue meaningful opportunities after graduation.

In doing so, we are fortunate to be able to draw on the talents and resources of three diverse institutions of higher education - Walla Walla Community College (which Selingo recently noted is "a great example of what a community college should be"), Walla Walla University (private faith-based university), and Whitman College (private secular 4-year liberal arts) - schools with distinctive approaches to preparing our students to be the citizens, workers, and shapers of the 21st century.

In crafting our annual event we have engaged area business leaders throughout the process, inviting them to be judges of the two contest rounds, mentors for the finalists, and network leads for the winners. They have also been wonderful sponsors of these contests, allowing us to award real cash prizes!

This week, our Pitch It contest heats up, moving into the semi-final round with the final event two weeks away (which will take place in our community's restored Power House Theater - an entrepreneurial endeavor in its own right). Local innovators from seven to 70 might be on stage together that night, giving all of them an opportunity to test their pitches in the marketplace of ideas (and letting them appreciate that entrepreneurs come in all ages!)

Our students love this contest. They tell us that it is educationally worthwhile, fun, and confidence-boosting. Maury Foreman, a Senior Manager at the Washington State Department of Commerce, who coordinates the state's GEW programming including our work in Walla Walla, echoes this feedback, noting:

Education is not just about scholarship, it's also about successful adulthood. Pitch it campaigns provide an excellent opportunity for millennials to carve a career for themselves and their friends who are as passionate about an idea as they are... An idea that may change the world.

Together we are helping our young people take their academic talents and deploy them in high-stakes contests in front of large (and sometimes skeptical) audiences - experiences like the ones that Selingo praises Lehigh for offering. As Kim Rolfe, Whitman's Director for Business Engagement, observes:

Walla Walla is a community where economic growth is driven by local agency and the successes of small businesses. Pitch It not only celebrates the work of our entrepreneurs, it also creates a vehicle by which future innovators prepare for success in building their networks and tapping into the resources that can drive their own growth.

Selingo is right that colleges can update and intensify our programs and courses, and my colleague Kim is also right that doing so doesn't necessarily require launching full-blown campus entrepreneurial programs. Rather, through strategic partnerships, mutually beneficial collaborations, and appropriate guidance we can all prepare the next generation for the world that they will create and lead.