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Students paying extra for business skills they say they haven’t learned on campus

Critics wonder: Why don’t colleges teach this?

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Ben Wei was already paying hefty tuition to earn a sociology degree from Bowdoin College, which charged nearly $57,000 at the time, but worried his classes weren’t teaching him skills he needed in the workplace.

So he gave up his winter break just a semester before graduating and paid another $3,000 to take a three-week business boot camp designed to teach him how to work a full-time job.

The course, offered by a company called Fullbridge, covered problem-solving, collaboration and communication—the kinds of skills employers say they want but aren’t getting from college grads.

“You can sit in a room and learn economic theory from a professor or a textbook, but at the end of the day, it’s still just theory,”said Wei, who now works as a data analyst. “They don’t really teach you how to apply that theory.”

Students in the Fullbridge Program, which charges them for business knowledge critics of colleges say they ought to get there. (Photo: The Fullbridge Program)

Students in the Fullbridge Program, which charges them for business knowledge critics of colleges say they ought to get there. (Photo: The Fullbridge Program)

More and more programs like Fullbridge are being started up to help students master career skills before starting their first jobs, most costing thousands of dollars on top of the already high price of their higher educations.

Which, for some critics, raises the question: Why aren’t they learning this in college?

“These institutions are notoriously hard to change,” said Steve Farkas, a senior researcher at the nonpartisan organization Public Agenda who authored a study of business leaders’ attitudes toward higher education. “They’re not responsive to real-world concerns and they are very protective of the standard operating procedures.”

More and more students are paying extra to learn career skills before starting their first jobs, forking over thousands of dollars on top of the already high price of higher education.

A few schools have started offering Fullbridge-type experiential learning programs to fill that gap. Some, like Bowdoin, invite Fullbridge onto their campuses and pay part of the cost. Others—including Northeastern, Mount Holyoke and the University of Central Florida—have so-called “experiential learning” options under which their students to work with employers in their chosen fields before graduation.

But these are still more the exception than the rule, said Farkas, who notes that many liberal-arts colleges and universities aren’t keeping up with the ever-evolving, hyper-competitive demands of the workplace. That’s provided an opening for companies like Fullbridge, which holds workshops in cities including New York and San Francisco at a cost of up to $8,500 per student.

Matt Tower, a student at Amherst College, spent his winter break 93 miles away at a Fullbridge seminar, and said the experience was unlike anything he could have gotten on campus — even though Amherst has an economics program and a few business-oriented clubs.

“We’re very strictly a liberal-arts college,”Tower said. “There are very few options at Amherst if you want to prepare for a career in business.”

Ursula Olender, director of the Amherst career center, said the school is in the process of setting up a program like Fullbridge’s on campus to help its students develop “the hard and soft skills that are not offered in great depth in a traditional liberal-arts setting.”

How to prepare for a career on any budgetSeveral companies, and even a few universities, are rushing to fill the gap between what college graduates know and what business leaders say they need.

But there are also ways to get these skills for cheap or free—or at least as part of the tuition you’re already paying.

Several universities emphasize business skills at no extra charge by offering “experiential education,” also called cooperative education, in which students spend as much as 18 months during college getting apprenticeship-style real-world professional experience related to their intended careers.

One of the oldest of these is at Northeastern University, so famous for the increasingly popular concept that its applications have been spiraling. It places students with employers in more than 2,500 workplaces nationwide and abroad. Other colleges and universities offer experiential learning in specific departments, such as engineering.

There are also scattered programs teaching business skills on many campuses.

MIT students likely don’t have too much trouble getting jobs, but the university nonetheless holds an annual “charm school” to show them business etiquette, from how to make a first impression to how to dress for work to which bread plate to use.

York College in Pennsylvania has a workshop for sophomores called Mastering the Art of Smalltalk; it’s required for some majors. There’s also a seminar about how to take criticism. And MBA and law students at the University of Iowa learn table manners at an annual dinner for this purpose.

Some large employers, impatient with the pace at which colleges are providing business skills, are doing it themselves.

Walmart employees who want to move up can take free online college-level classes in business administration. McDonald’s has its own Hamburger University at its Oak Brook, Ill., headquarters, where managers and prospective managers spend a week a year learning not how to flip hamburgers but how to sharpen their business and leadership skills. And Starbucks workers can take two custom courses designed for them under a partnership with City University of Seattle, with no application fee and grande-sized discounts of 50 percent off.

Some of these programs even come with academic credits that may be used toward degrees.

The price has not yet been determined, Olender said, but she said “no qualified Amherst student who cannot pay will be denied the opportunity to participate.”

Bowdoin spokesman Doug Cook said Bowdoin does offer students other chances “to deepen their understanding of issues surrounding business and personal finance.” The school’s president himself, Barry Mills, headlined a series of lectures called “A Crash Course on Practical Skills,” which also featured instructors from Fullbridge, and Bowdoin offers a leadership-development program and forums organized by its Finance Society and Women in Business club.

Fullbridge is hardly the only — or even most expensive — organization that seeks to fill the gap between what colleges are teaching and what employers say they need.

The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth offers a similar monthlong program in the summers for $10,000, and is expanding it to December. Harvard Business School just started a $1,500 online course to teach undergraduates elsewhere “the fundamentals of business thinking.”

Thirteen universities, including Brown, Georgetown, and the University of Southern California, have teamed up with a Seattle-based startup called Koru, which gives students the opportunity to work on real-world problems for businesses such as REI while working under executive coaches. The price: $2,750, though the participating schools often subsidize the cost.
A company called General Assembly has a 10-week course in business fundamentals and tactics for $3,900 that covers everything from financial modeling to team management and is touted as a condensed version of business school.

Internships are another way to learn some of these skills, but often those experiences are more about getting coffee than career development, said Dyanne Rousseau, a recruiting coordinator at Mount Holyoke.

For the most part, employers remain unimpressed with the job colleges are doing to prepare their graduates. Nearly ninety percent of 500 executives surveyed said college graduates lack the most important skills they need to succeed, according to a Northeastern University report released in April.

“There is a communication breakdown between colleges and employers,”said Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, a small liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Colleges and universities haven’t done enough listening to what employers need, and employers need to talk more about their requirements.”

To meet the demands of a globalized economy, universities and colleges have to give students hands-on business experience so they can learn to apply their academic skills, said Jason Tyszko, senior director of education and workforce policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

“Soft skills are missing across the board, regardless of what industry you look at,”Tyszko said. “We need to make sure that the rigorous standards of the higher education system are better aligned with the needs of businesses.”

Yet, advocates for the liberal arts say focusing too narrowly on business skills produces students who can make presentations and read spreadsheets but can’t think broadly enough to know why the information they’re working with is important, or how to use it.

“What we don’t want are universities to think they should become centers for vocational activities,”said William “Brit”Kirwan, outgoing chancellor of the University System of Maryland. “If you just train people to take their first job, they won’t have the knowledge and skills and adaptability that they’ll need later on in their career.”

But, at least for now, the balance is shifting towards emphasizing practical education over theoretical learning —and business leaders say colleges are only slowly starting to catch on to that.

Fewer than a third in that survey said they expect the situation to improve.

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