Beginning in 2009, Sean Gallagher has led the development of Northeastern University’s strategy to establish satellite campuses, and invest in the growth of online programs and degrees.

Now in an academic research role, he and Northeastern are turning their attention to impacting the higher education and employment sectors as a whole by launching the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.

The center represents the first applied research center dedicated to studying, understanding, and forecasting trends and future developments related to education credentialing, employer partnership models, and learning and development.

It couldn’t make more sense that Northeastern and Gallagher would be behind the introduction of the center. Throughout their time as influencers in higher education and talent strategy, they have been examining the evolving relationship between institutions and employers, and applying their findings to the development of new learning models, credentials, and employer partnerships.

“The Center is a natural extension of the university’s market position, in terms of being very unique due to its integration with employers,” Gallagher, the center’s executive director, explained. “Now we are sharing what we know and what we believe in with the world through new applied research and partnering with employers in new ways in this moment where colleges and universities, policymakers, employers and others seem to be craving new models around competency and new forms of credentialing.”

Launching the Center: A Natural Progression

Both Northeastern and Gallagher have a long history of standing in the middle of this intersection of higher education and talent strategy.

Northeastern has been established as a leader in experiential and cooperative learning for over 100 years. Throughout that time the institution has developed partnerships with over 3,000 employers, and leveraged those partnerships to develop new learning models and satellite campuses.

Gallagher has roughly 20 years of experience focusing on strategy and innovation in higher education. Before joining Northeastern in 2009, he worked with hundreds of colleges and universities doing research and consulting.

Throughout its history, Northeastern has established campuses outside of Boston, invested in the growth of online programs and degrees, and established new forms of partnerships such as those it shares with General Electric, Cisco and IDT. Gallagher, who completed his undergraduate and doctorate degrees at Northeastern, has played a large role in said initiatives.

“Over the course of that journey, I had always been interested in tracking what it is employers want from higher ed and how they view things like online degrees, credentials, etc.,” Gallagher explained. “Working at Northeastern, I found myself on the road meeting with employers very often. It was really interesting to get to understand how employers hire and what their talent needs are.”

The Center’s Mission

From a very broad perspective, the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy will strengthen the collaboration between higher education and employers/industry.

While conducting research and producing case studies, reports, and papers, Gallagher and his team will also serve as the voice for both employers and higher education leaders in their counterparts’ field.

“Too often, in the higher education ecosystem, the needs of employers and what employers are doing isn’t understood by the higher ed community,” Gallagher stated. “It also goes the other way. In the talent, HR, and hiring world we are representing the voice of higher education. We’re sharing what the trends are in higher education, what that means for the types of talent employers will have access to, and the ways that they can collaborate with colleges and universities.”

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The Intersection of Higher Education and Industry

Gallagher often references that the work conducted through the newly launched center lies at the “intersection of higher education and industry,” with “industry” representing the world of employment and talent strategy.

With that said, how are the two currently interacting and impacting one another?

Gallagher starts by focusing on the extended role employers play in the higher education ecosystem. We all understand that employers hire graduates and that institutions are working to better align programming and education with the skills and competencies employers are seeking.

But it goes beyond the hiring of graduates to the role employers play in influencing curriculum through projects and direct sponsorship. An example of this type of employer involvement is seen in Georgia Tech teaming up with Udacity and AT&T to offer a high-profile online master’s degree in Computer Science.

Northeastern has it’s own partnership with General Electric that is a result of the U.S. Department of Education’s EQUIP (Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships) initiative. This innovative partnership is meant to skill up the workforce, increase job readiness, and develop talent pipelines in a way that benefits the manufacturing industry and GE’s own workforce.

While the intersection of higher education and talent strategy will be at the core of the work produced at Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, there are other specific trends Gallagher and the team are following.

Employer Investment in Continued Education

Sean Gallagher (Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University)

Sean Gallagher (Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University)

Beyond partnerships such as those Northeastern has with General Electric and others, employers are displaying great interest in contributing to educational programming.

“There are ways that employers are directly involved in the design of educational programming,” Gallagher confirmed. “Unfortunately, I think most institutions’ academic culture is not oriented towards welcoming or enabling the input of employers, yet that’s clearly what the job market is demanding in terms of the right outcomes, competencies, skills, etc.”

Employers already invest heavily in education through tuition assistance and funding for employees to pursue education. A new pattern Gallagher has noticed is that of employers in the service industry supporting employees in undergraduate degree completion. This is used as a retention method.

This particular trend causes Gallagher to point out that executive education, and learning and development training programs provide a greater opportunity for collaboration between higher education and talent strategy.

“There are about three million new graduates each year, compared to 20 million people who hold college and university credentials that are changing jobs, moving into new roles in a given year,” Gallagher said. “That’s why we’ve included ‘Talent Strategy’ in the name, because the work between employers and higher ed goes beyond just hiring.

The increasing prominence of MOOCs proves universities have the ability to serve as providers of professional development and executive education. Gallagher states that a lot of content already coming out of university MOOC programs is having a transformative impact on the training market.

Moving forward, that’s an ideal space for higher ed and employers to strengthen their existing partnership.

The State of Alternative Credentials

Alternative credentials have long been offered at colleges and universities, and there are countless examples today of institutions offering non-degree credentials. For example, there is the University Learning Store, which is a consortium made up of extensions of University of Wisconsin, University of Washington, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, as well as Georgia Institute of Technology. Harvard Business School has its own program called the Credential of Readiness (CORe).

Gallagher notes these institutional programs can often go overlooked compared to the attention drawn by noninstitutional providers such as Udacity and it’s nanodegree offering and EdX’s MicroMasters program.

While the jury is still out on the substantial value alternative credentials offer, they continue to gain traction as a focus in both higher education and industry. The market’s current focal point is in developing material for those seeking post-baccalaureate education, graduate-level, or continued skills and professional development education. But, Gallagher speculates there is strong opportunity to apply alternative credentials to “traditional undergraduate” education.

“I think that type of student will increasingly carry alternative credentials with them,” he stated. “That can be in the sense that there is digital badging that complements their traditional degree. In other cases, especially at the community college level, students will be earning certificates that they’re stacking on their way to a larger degree.”

Returns on alternative credentials may be speculative at this time, but one thing is certain — the trend is driving greater alignment between institutions and employers. Gallagher notes that alternative credential curriculum is aligned with professional content and skills-needs, therefore making it necessary institutions engage employers in the development.

The longevity of trends such as alternative credentials will continue to take form as we move into 2018, and Northeastern University, Gallagher and the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy will serve as a crucial resource to understand where education and industry is heading.

Be sure to follow the Center as it continues to outline and produce research and studies that will help all better serve those entering and contributing to the workforce.