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January 9, 2023 Industry Outlook | Higher Education

Colleges focus on new business partnerships, degree programs to address workforce shortages

Contributed Joanne Berger-Sweeney, president of Trinity College.

Many Connecticut colleges in 2023 will continue to focus on bouncing back from declining enrollment and financial challenges brought on by the pandemic, which forced universities to significantly expand online and hybrid learning opportunities.

College leaders said they also see a major opportunity amid the state’s ongoing workforce shortage that’s impacting a cross-section of industries. In response, many colleges have plans in the year ahead to form new partnerships with private-sector employers and launch new majors and degrees in in-demand careers.

The Hartford Business Journal recently asked four college presidents what key trends will impact their industry in 2023.

They included John Maduko, president of the Connecticut State Community College system; Rhona Free, president of the University of St. Joseph; Joanne Berger-Sweeney, president of Trinity College; and Gregory Woodward, University of Hartford president.

Here’s what they had to say.

Private-sector connections

Connecticut colleges have a long history of forging partnerships with the business community, through internships, scholarships, networking, research or other types of programs.

One of the more recent high-profile partnerships was between Hartford-based Trinity College and IT giant Infosys, which established a set of programs designed to link the liberal arts with digital technology skills and careers. UConn, the state’s flagship university, plans to announce “significant” new partnerships with Raytheon Technologies and Hartford HealthCare this year.

Maduko said such partnerships are becoming more common at a time when students are looking for any edge in landing a job with growth potential.

The state’s community colleges have partnerships with a number of major companies including Dominion Energy, Eversource, Travelers, Electric Boat and CT Children’s.

“The future is more sponsorships,” Maduko said because they help create essential worker pipelines.

John Maduko

Woodward said companies have worked with UHart to create scholarships for students they seek to recruit for employment.

“Such partnerships will continue to provide stability and support for institutions and businesses as they look ahead to a perhaps unpredictable economic landscape in the coming year,” Woodward said.

New majors, degree programs

Also key to addressing the state’s workforce challenges is adding new degree or certificate programs in growing or emerging fields, college leaders said.

“As markets shift, the needs of the professional world evolve and the workforce changes further, thus colleges and universities must respond in earnest,” Woodward said. “The pandemic was a poignant reminder of this responsibility, but the economy and record inflation have made this mission more urgent. For institutions of higher education to best prepare the next generation of learners and leaders, new majors and programs must be developed, and technology in classrooms, laboratories, and hands-on learning spaces must advance with them.”

UHart in late 2021 opened its 60,000-square-foot Hursey Center for advanced engineering and health care that has made it possible for the school to introduce new majors in construction management, technology and aerospace, and expand offerings for nursing and healthcare professions.

Gregory Woodword

Woodward said there will be additional new programs in the year ahead.

UConn will be launching several new majors and certificate programs, including bachelor’s degrees in applied data analysis and statistical data, and graduate certificate programs in genomic data analytics and emerging women’s leadership.

The University of St. Joseph recently added a dual degree in pharmacy and public health for graduate students and an undergraduate sports management certificate program.

Accelerated degree programs

Another trend is that an increasing number of college students are proactively seeking to advance directly into graduate programs immediately after a bachelor’s degree, Woodward said.

Traditionally, students take four years to earn an undergraduate degree, but schools are increasingly launching new three-plus-one programs that allow students to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in four years.

Such programs are in high demand, specifically at UHart’s Barney School of Business, Woodward said, and will likely gain steam with the escalating costs of higher education.

“Students reap financial savings, enter the job market sooner, and quickly catapult themselves toward a higher-earning potential over the course of their career,” Woodward said.

COVID-19 impact

Meantime, Berger-Sweeney said COVID-19 was and continues to be a major disruptor in higher education.

“Students are coming out of a time when their educational experience has been significantly disrupted by COVID and pandemic conditions,” Trinity’s president said. “Colleges around the country are matriculating students for whom there may be learning loss, impacted social skills, and challenges to mental well-being.”

Some colleges are spending more money on mental health services.

The pandemic has also created student recruitment and retention challenges for Connecticut colleges.

Rhona Free

USJs Free said that from 2019 to 2021, the percentage of white students in Connecticut who enrolled in college within one year of high school graduation dropped four percentage points, while the percentage of students of color dropped by seven points and is almost 17 percentage points below that for white students.

Schools need to figure out ways to deal with this issue with things like more proactive advising, she said.

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