CORPORATIONS are spending serious money -- $40 billion to $60 billion annually -- to plug the growing gap between what their employees learn in traditional universities and what they need to know on the job. American Telephone & Telegraph will spend about $800 million this year to educate some 75,000 student-employees, many of them at its 250-acre education center near Thornwood, N.Y.
International Business Machines, Hewlett-Packard, and a multitude of others will also spend large chunks of cash to educate millions of employees. Now education observers are saying the time has come for traditional universities to pay closer attention to this ``third leg'' of the United States education system.
That leg consists not only of in-house corporate education, but also so-called ``corporate colleges'' that evolved under corporate sponsorship but have become independent of the mother company. Such corporate-spawned institutions have evolved primarily to train employees for specific corporate needs -- and to keep up with technological and other changes.
Few expect a Stanford or an Ohio State University to custom-train graduates for General Electric or IBM. Many contend that if universities don't pursue the basic research that underlies industrial invention, then probably nobody will. More fundamentally, universities, unlike corporations, are sanctuaries for diverse and often unpopular views. But corporate education may nevertheless hold some clues for improving teaching in colleges and universities.
Here, for example, are a few of the ways corporations have tried to ensure quality in their training programs:
Raising teacher salaries to put them on a par with other occupations. This keeps valued teachers in the classroom, whereas many universities are finding it hard to retain faculty, especially in the sciences.
Placing teachers on multi-year contracts with regular performance reviews. The absence of tenure helps avoid professorial deadwood and keeps teachers on their toes.
Encouraging teachers to focus on teaching. This is instead of judging them on their research and publications.
Developing a curriculum that crosses the boundaries of the traditional academic disciplines. The interdisciplinary approach is much more difficult in a university setting in which the academic turf is already staked out.
Stressing teamwork through class projects that require group effort. This replaces the chronic individualism of conventional studies.
``Our colleges and universities focus so much on each individual's development and individual progress,'' says Nell Eurich, author of ``Corporate Classrooms: The Learning Business'' and a senior consultant to the Academy for Educational Development. ``We haven't worked [as corporate educators have] to develop students' abilities to work together as a team toward solution of the larger issues that no one student could ever hope to solve alone.''
Nationally, at least 18 schools originally set up by corporations are now accredited and offering degree programs.
GMI Engineering and Management Institute in Flint, Mich., for example, was founded by General Motors but is independent now. ``The day our students graduate they are ready to go to work,'' says a proud GMI official. Bachelor degree candidates alternate 12 weeks of on-the-job experience with 12 weeks of class time. Enrollment at the college is just over 3,000 students, up 30 percent since 1982.
By contrast, the Wang Institute of Graduate Studies was founded in 1979 in Tyngsboro, Mass., has only 60 students. But it is no less impressive. Established in 1979 by An Wang of Wang Laboratories fame, the institute specializes in software engineering, an entirely new field which Mr. Wang pioneered and which replaces the traditional hit-or-miss development cycle for computer software with a more systematic approach. Students come here from a potpourri of computer companies that include Data General, IBM, National Cash Register, and Digital Equipment Company, to name just a few.
``When they say teaching is the priority, and not research or publication, they really mean it,'' says Carl Lagozel, a recent Wang graduate, who says such was not the case at his former alma mater. Wang hires top professionals on three to five-year contracts, at wages equal to or above those in the industry. There is no tenure.
There is, however, a great deal of work. ``This is the third week,'' saysBrian Sullivan with significant emphasis. ``Right about now the 30 new students here are feeling totally overwhelmed.'' A computer software engineer at the Wang Institute, Mr. Sullivan knows whereof he speaks, having recently survived the program's rigors.
``I've heard people describe this as software engineering boot camp,'' Sullivan says. ``It's true. Many of the students are taking four courses a week, with about 10-15 hours of out-of-class work for each class. . . . When you finally finish this, you still have the feeling you should be working 70 hours a week.''
Recalling the intensity of the 12-month master's program, Sullivan says students must absolutely work as a team to survive. Teamwork is stressed again in project management courses, where students are made responsible for projects they cannot possibly complete alone.
The institute also blends such disciplines as business management and software engineering theory, in a way not often found at traditional universities, where departmental boundaries make such cooperation difficult.
The National Technological University in Fort Collins, Colo., arose out of the need to reeducate engineers who found themselves light-years behind advancing technology. NTU broadcasts live lectures or videotapes of the ``best teachers from the best schools, teaching their best courses,'' via TV signals bounced from satellite to more than 50 reception sites across the country.
Begun two years ago by 15 major corporations, NTU now boasts more than 600 active graduate engineering students. Nonetheless, its commencement ceremony next month promises to be brief. Clad in cap and gown, Michael Reiss, a computer engineer who lives in Cambridge, Ohio, will stroll across center stage to receive his master's degree all by himself -- the university's first and only graduate so far.
As with most sweaty-palmed graduates, it will be for Mr. Reiss a blessedly short, if memorable, moment.
For NTU, the prospect of the many who will follow Reiss makes even this inauspicious ceremony ever so sweet.