How Better Job Descriptions Will Change Higher Education

Volume VI, #12

I’m not always great at predicting the future. Sure, two decades ago I believed online universities would be a thing. Then the moment MOOCs appeared, I made the correct call that MOOCs would be about as important as the Spice Girls. Most important, I moved to Brooklyn long before it was hip. But my brother often reminds me of the time I suggested to him and our friend Max – both avid bridge players and uncharacteristically quantitative for law students – that rather than working for a law firm, they seek employment at a company called Enron. You haven’t heard of it? I asked incredulously. Enron is changing the world. They’re trading energy futures, weather derivatives, broadband – anything that can’t be nailed down…

I’m thinking about this because Aaron recently texted me about the cost of wind energy: “negative at certain times of the day, generally noon.” (Yes, we’re both big nerds.) I texted back he should still be working at Enron, but mistyped Enron as Enrol. To which he responded: “Enrol is a huge trader in education markets being investigated for manipulating prices of degree futures.” As anyone could have predicted, my brother has figured out what I find funny.

But one thing I’m very confident about is this: job descriptions are going to play a big role in improving America’s system of higher education. In my last post, I described how employers’ applicant tracking systems would begin surfacing the competencies of candidates in conjunction with new competency data from assessments, projects and micro-credentials. Which will result in competency-based hiring, with job descriptions spelling out competencies rather than mindlessly parroting degree requirements. Which will unbundle degrees into employment-connected credentials that are shorter, less expensive and easier to complete. Which in turn should ameliorate the foremost inequity in higher education: that 46% of students (and a much higher % of low-income and minority students) who undertake bachelor’s degrees fail to complete, and thereby incur significant direct and opportunity costs without achieving any credential or payback.

The nexus of this simultaneously utopian (for students) and dystopian (for universities) future is the job description. None of this works unless job descriptions accurately describe jobs. So here is what we know about job descriptions (with thanks to Matt Sigelman at Burning Glass). With the exception of some union and public sector positions and a smattering of rural and casual jobs, they are now largely online; best estimates are about 85% (up from 71% five years ago). Today 61% of online job postings are for jobs that don’t require a college degree, roughly in line with the 68% of the U.S. workforce without one. An increasing number are demanding skills from different fields and specifying cognitive skills. And where there appears to be a skill gap in a particular profession, job descriptions are increasingly over-emphasizing these missing skills. So it’s fair to say employers are starting to take job descriptions seriously. What’s more, they’re about to get a lot better. The advent of “People Analytics” technologies within enterprises will allow employers to track employee performance with a feedback loop to job descriptions. People Analytics will hone job descriptions to precise, data-rich renderings of the profiles of top performers.


Then there’s higher education. College and university job descriptions focus on easy-to-measure metrics like research and under-index hard-to-measure metrics like producing student outcomes. In a survey of current faculty job postings, University Ventures found that references to teaching and student outcomes are dwarfed by references to formal credentials, research and publications. Moreover, when teaching is referenced in faculty job descriptions, it’s lip service e.g., “effective teaching,” which is tantamount to job descriptions in other fields demanding “effective workers.” It’s lazy, and not a thoughtful, deliberate attempt to describe the competencies required to produce superior student outcomes e.g., candidates should be familiar with research in cognitive science and educational psychology and have a demonstrated track record of applying this research in their own discipline. And we were unable to find a single job description that said anything about establishing an inclusive environment in the classroom – a contributor to inequitable attrition rates, as well as the sense of many low-income and minority students that they don’t belong, aren’t welcome and aren’t safe.

Equally important, even if pie-in-the-sky references to “effective teaching” in faculty job descriptions were the operative competencies, we know this isn’t how colleges and universities hire. To whatever degree colleges and universities take teaching into account in assembling candidate pools, winning candidates are those with the best measurable credentials (i.e., degrees from most elite institutions, number of publications, prestige of journals).

Of course, it would be odd if the institutions behind degrees and publications led the charge in hiring based on competencies that produce student outcomes rather than vague signals. But think of the potential benefits if they did. What if colleges and universities stopped hiring faculty who are untrained and unsuited to teach students in the classroom (let alone to teach with technology)? What if every class were taught by a faculty member with demonstrated competencies for achieving student outcomes? Even if nothing else changed, completion rates would soar.


Higher education may end up being late to competency marketplaces, but colleges and universities can’t hold out forever. Schools that do a better job of describing faculty competencies that produce superior student outcomes, and then begin hiring accordingly, will see growth in student satisfaction, completion, and tuition revenue. Although in all likelihood, by the time this becomes the norm, it won’t be degrees students are completing, but shorter, less expensive employment-connected credentials.

Let’s hope enlightened schools focus more on accurately defining competencies related to student success in faculty job descriptions rather than looking for vague symbols of prestige. I’m not always right about everything, but it’s common sense that jobs aren't going to be well done unless they're first well described.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of 'innovation from within'. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV is setting new standards for student outcomes and advancing the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.


Three articles that tell us where the puck is going in higher education

1. Do This, Not That Amazon announces new Career Choice benefit for employees, pre-paying 95% of tuition, fees and textbooks for certain certificates and associates degrees and states that every fulfillment center will be equipped with classrooms for delivering college and technical classes. We exclusively fund education only in areas that are in high demand according to sources like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and we fund those areas regardless of whether those skills are relevant to a career at Amazon… [Benefit only applies to] high-demand occupations such as aircraft mechanics, computer-aided design, machine tool technologies, medical lab technologies and nursing. Read more 2. A Crisis of Quality Third Way report on quality crisis at private colleges, summarizing familiar critiques (i.e., completion rates, student loan debt, economic mobility, no connection between price and quality) at one handy link. This degree of institutional failure goes well beyond the current discussion about rising tuition costs to the very essence of what colleges spend billions of dollars purporting to do… Of course tuition price is important… But this conversation is too limited, often absolving colleges from taking responsibility for their outcomes. Read more 3. Help Wanted McGraw-Hill Education survey says college students are increasingly focused on preparing for careers, and increasingly concerned that schools aren’t giving them what they need. Only four in 10 college seniors… feel their college experience has been very helpful in preparing for a career… an increasing percentage report that they would have preferred their schools to provide more internships and professional experiences, more time to focus on career preparation, better access to career preparation tools… students in community colleges are as likely to feel prepared for careers and be satisfied with their collegiate experience as students at four-year colleges. Read more