Missouri Commissioner of Higher Education Discusses State of Missouri Higher Education


Zora Mulligan, Missouri Higher Education commissioner, discussed the state of higher education in Missouri during a presentation to the Southeast Missouri State University Board of Regents Dec. 14.

Mulligan told the board, “We are living in a time of rapidly accelerating change,” as she discussed the evolving landscape in Missouri for post-secondary education as state workforce development needs are driving change.

She referenced increased urbanization, resource scarcity, shifts in the global economy, demographic changes and technological breakthroughs, saying these factors will fundamentally impact the way we live and work. She said the coming transformation will be like none other in history.

Mulligan said higher education needs to prepare people for advances in artificial intelligence and robotics while continuing to equip students with durable skills needed across many workplaces, including writing and communication skills, critical thinking and the ability to work in teams.

“The highest job growth will be in occupations that require social and analytical skills,” she said, adding emotional intelligence, curiosity, creativity, adaptability and resilience will continue to be highly valued in the workplace and matter the most in the long run. For many jobs, she said, what a person studied will not be as important as what they learned. That’s why durable skills are important.

Missouri is growing in the right places, she said, with students increasingly choosing majors important to the workforce. She cited growth in students pursuing majors in health, public services, engineering and technology, life and physical sciences, and mathematics fields as evidence of this shift. Students pursuing education majors, however, are declining, which is problematic as teachers are vital in educating the state’s future workforce, she said.

She said 88 of every 100 students graduate from high school in Missouri. But only 55 of every 88 who graduate from high school go on to college.

“We need to have a plan so they don’t drift in the economy,” she said, citing the need for short-term and skills-based training, including apprenticeships, to ensure these individuals make a living.

Many students and employers need specific skills now, she said. In addition, continuing education and training to acquire skills needed in the workplace are of utmost concern to Missouri employers.

“No other issue is of more concern for business owners today,” she said.

The big questions for students, she told the Board, are whether higher education into the future will allow them to get a better job, earn more money or keep their current job and whether their degree will depreciate faster than the time needed to pay for it. Likewise, employers are questioning what a college degree means, whether skills behind the credential have value and whether students can learn better through an organized course of study instead of teaching themselves. Employers want to know that a college degree represents more than a certificate of attendance, she said. The big questions for universities are whether they can engage faculty in workforce development and be flexible enough to meet the needs of a rapidly changing economy. Universities will need to consider whether than can design workforce programs that pay for themselves and if a shift toward workforce preparation affects their overall business model.

Workforce development is a cornerstone of Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s platform. Discussions with employers across the state indicate Missouri needs more people in the workforce. The state also needs to keep its young people in Missouri. These factors, she said will help increase the productivity of Missouri’s workforce and build infrastructure to drive economic development, all while making Missouri the best place to live and work.

Government can help, she concluded, by providing financial support for programs that meet specific workforce needs, rethinking student financial aid and focusing on populations not currently served well.