When a state's higher education system is clicking on all cylinders, graduates from its public and independent institutions have the tools to succeed in a fast-changing world and contribute in the 21st century workforce.

It's estimated that by the year 2020, 70% of jobs in Connecticut will require some education beyond high school. More than half of these will need at least a bachelor's degree.

But is Connecticut's higher education system capable of producing graduates ready to meet those needs? And if not, what has to change?

Judy Resnick, executive director of CBIA's Education Foundation and chairperson of the state's Commission on Higher Education, says "The need to have skilled talent coming from our institutions is very clear, both from the standpoint of our state's economic future and the ability of our young people to have productive careers and lives."

Even now, she added, some of the highest-potential jobs in Connecticut are in biosciences, healthcare, and precision manufacturing, industries that require achievement in higher education.

Yet the commission, charged by the legislature to develop a master plan for improving higher education in the state, also has found that graduates from the state's higher education institutions don't have the degrees or skills needed by industry.

The blue-ribbon group: composed of legislators; representatives of business and industry; the general public; education, economic and community development, and labor commissioners; and representatives of both public and independent institutions: has examined data showing that Connecticut is far behind the U.S. average in graduating students with skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and skills for the healthcare and advanced manufacturing fields.

The commission is also holding forums with employers in every region of the state in order to get a firsthand picture of the workforce needs of different sectors and parts of Connecticut.

Why a Skills Gap?

"We've found a lot of reasons that span all aspects of the educational experience," says Resnick.

Among those reasons:

  • Too few individuals are going to college. Participation rates are low for low-income students, males, minorities, and adults.
  • Too few enrollees are completing college. Far too many students enter college without the academic skills required to complete a rigorous college curriculum.
  • The high cost of college is increasingly a barrier to both enrollment and persistence to graduation. Students are working so many hours to pay for college that academics suffer.
  • Curricula in the schools are not sufficiently aligned with the workforce needs of Connecticut employers. The employers are dissatisfied with the skills of graduates who apply for employment, and students don't see how their academic programs lead to the high-wage jobs that are available.

Facing the Challenges

Resnick says the data-gathering phase of the commission's work is nearly complete, and a set of strategic priorities that will guide higher education policymaking is emerging. During the next few months the commission will:

  • Complete a strategic plan that provides a framework for the whole system, including UConn, the state universities and community colleges, and private colleges and universities. This is a long-term plan to be updated periodically in order keep pace with the dynamics of the state's economy.
  • Develop recommendations for policy changes and implementation activities that remove barriers to attainment of the goals articulated in the plan and provide incentives for institutional contributions to these goals.

Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, and a consultant to the commission, notes that "Connecticut is blessed with a system of higher education comprised of strong institutions of all types. The work of the commission must be to help create a policy environment in which these institutions contribute more purposefully to the needs of Connecticut and its citizens."