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The Uni App: New Model for the Undergraduate Degree

July 29, 2013

SHRM recently reported that more than 50% of business execs felt newly-hired college grads were ill-equipped for the corporate world.  They cited significant deficiencies in basic writing and communication skills as well as being generally ill-suited for work.

This is horrible math for the US economy:  on one side of the equation, legions of newly-minted graduates, the vast majority burdened with crushing debt and lacking the capability to secure a job with a wage commensurate with their ostensible career choice;  on the other, critical jobs going unfilled, forcing employers to “downgrade” with under-qualified individuals or to obtain talent via off-shoring or foreign worker sponsorship.

The result?  High youth unemployment, a corresponding drag on corporate growth and innovation, and an over-credentialed services sector of law-schooled taxi drivers and barista PhDs.

All Dollars, No Sense

The stateFeeling Unprepared For A Task of Oregon thinks it has the answer with its “Pay it Forward” program, where students are offered a generous repayment plan tied to future earnings. Unfortunately, this does nothing to close the skills gap between the credential and the job requirement.   It gets worse:  based on an analysis of 2012 ACT test scores, more than 60% of high school students are not prepared for college.  Incredibly, they were only able to demonstrate competence in two of the four tested areas:  English, math, science, and reading.  The system is seriously broken if more than half of the incoming college freshman are spending their first year in remedial courses, at a cost of $20k in public schools, $40k in private.  Oregon’s plan to fiddle with interest rates and cash flow is deck-chair arranging on the Titanic.

Many believe technology will solve this problem, pointing to MOOCs (Massive On-Line Open Courses) that deliver an Ivy-league education at a fraction of the cost.  But critics rightly point out that these virtual curricula deliver a hollowed-out experience and run the real risk of stunting the development of one’s emotional intelligence.  In today’s borderless world, acquiring knowledge (the IQ) is the easy part; how one applies it (the emotional intelligence, or “EQ”) will determine one’s ultimate effectiveness.

Applied Learning:  The Uni App

With its serendipitous blend of casual conversation and formal discourse, college life no doubt “primes the pump” of one’s EQ engine.  However, one needs to engage that EQ beyond the walls of the ivory tower to learn how to navigate and contribute in the real world.    This type of “road test” thrived centuries ago in the form of multi-year apprenticeships for a whole host of professional trades, where novices evolved under the watchful eyes of their skilled mentors.

So rather than palliative measures for the debt burden and partisan finger-pointing on the demise of the US education system, let’s consider a new template for the university degree, one which streamlines the campus experience and which reintroduces a more robust apprenticeship that forges a broad-based partnership between academia and the corporate world.

The university apprenticeship (Uni App) would last 12 months (the equivalent of a summer and one academic year)  where students would be placed in entry-level roles with participating companies.  Successful completion of the Uni App would be a graduation requirement, with most fulfilling it after having completed two years of coursework on campus.  (Those who complete a year’s service in the National Guard, the Peace Corp or the military could potentially be exempt from the Uni App.)

Uni App participants would be expected to acquire and apply the three “C”s for the workplace:

* Communication

* Computation

* Collaboration

Universities would partner with companies (ideally facilitated by the talent acquisition staff within the firm’s HR department) to tailor these programs to leverage the individual schools’ areas of academic expertise while addressing the specific business needs of their partner companies.

The workplace provides ample “content” for creating Uni Apps. Drafting press releases, participating in a client presentation, or preparing a grant proposal could all fulfill the communication component. Assisting in the preparation of a firm’s year-end close, writing code for a new software program, or monitoring clinical trials could satisfy the computation component.  Fulfilling the collaboration component would simply be a matter of embedding the participant in a team and providing feedback on the quality of their engagement and interaction. Every industry is teeming with these opportunities:  it is simply a matter of framing them in the context of an apprenticeship where the focus is on learning and development.

The business world already boasts many fine examples of the applied learning that is the DNA of an apprenticeship.  Indeed, many firms have recently ramped up and/or re-tooled their internal learning and development resources to build organization capability. And while these programs are typically geared towards middle and upper management, the infrastructure could easily be tweaked to accommodate the apprentice partnership with undergraduate programs.  (General Electric, often viewed as the gold standard for leadership development, offers a 12-week session for university students)


Coupled with a 3-year “traditional” on-campus curriculum, the Uni App would lower the total cost of the undergraduate degree and produce more graduates better prepared for the workplace. In exchange for services rendered by the Uni App participant (they will be performing real work, after all)  the sponsor company would contribute a flat amount (say, $25,000) towards the student’s university costs.  Since this is roughly the cost of an entry-level employee, the impact on the firm’s P&L would be minimal.  And since the funds are earmarked for education, the contributions would be tax-exempt for both the student and the employer.  The student who previously paid $48,000 for a 4-year public school degree now faces a 3-yr bill of $36,000, with nearly two-thirds of that subsidized by the Uni App credit.

Existing worker training programs and portions of corporate L&D budgets could be redeployed to underwrite the cost of the design, implementation and assessment of the Uni App, which would be driven at a grass-roots level among the participating universities and businesses.

Everyone Wins

Broadly embraced, the Uni App would restore considerable heft to one’s education credential.  For example:

Jane Adams  – Georgetown University – BA, Economics (Apprenticeship:  Marriott International)

Jim Sullivan –  University of Texas – Austin  – BA, English  (Apprenticeship:  Dell)

The Uni App would provide powerful incentives to all stakeholders to ensure its success:  students get real world exposure and begin building key relationships and networks to help them gain a foothold in their chosen career;  schools leverage their business partnerships to supplement their existing programs with the expertise and facilities funded by corporate budgets; and, businesses reap the benefits of a vastly superior talent pipeline that enables them to offer full-time roles to those Uni App participants who have demonstrated the strongest alignment and fit to their culture.

The Uni App becomes the pivot point between a more focused and relevant college experience and a smoother on-boarding of qualified entry-level talent in the workplace. When everyone has skin in the game, everyone wins.


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