According to a report released by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in 2019, 85% of freshmen said that being able to get a better job was a “very important” factor in their decision to attend college. That outranked all other considerations, including gaining a general education, becoming a more cultured person, learning more about personal interests and being able to make more money.1
That may explain why most provosts say they feel “pressure” from presidents, board members and donors to focus on career-oriented programs.2
What educational outcomes do employers want?
Unfortunately, not everyone is confident that today’s graduates are well prepared for the workforce they’re preparing to enter. A 2018 survey of employers noted that just 33% of executives and 39% of hiring managers believe that recent graduates are “very well prepared to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings.”3
According to the same report, the “learning priorities” most valued by executives and hiring managers (respectively) are:
- Ability to effectively communicate orally (80%, 90%)
- Critical thinking/analytical reasoning (78%, 84%)
- Ethical judgment and decision-making (77%, 87%)
- Ability to work effectively in teams (77%, 87%)
- Ability to work independently (77%, 85%)
- Self-motivation/initiative (76%, 85%)
- Ability to communicate effectively in writing (76%, 78%)
- Ability to apply knowledge/skills to real-world settings (76%, 87%)
How wide is the gap between employer expectations and reality? Consider how few executives believe that recent college graduates are well prepared in the three most important areas listed above: Only 40% think they communicate effectively orally; just 34% feel they’re able to think critically and reason analytically; and 34% are confident in their capacity for ethical judgment and decision-making.
Recognizing the obstacles
Why are colleges and universities producing graduates who struggle to meet the expectations of employers? There is no single “correct” answer to that question, but credible theories abound.
Some pundits rely on the old adage that traditional higher ed institutions are simply slow to change. They also suggest that because colleges and universities aren’t necessarily evaluated on the career outcomes of their graduates, they have little motivation to make curriculum changes that specifically address the demands of employers.
Yet those sound more like excuses than credible explanations. After all, programs that fail to change with the times are at a significant risk of falling behind and, ultimately, failing.
The marketplace that prepares Americans for the workforce today includes players and attitudes that were barely even blips on the radar of higher ed leaders just a few short years ago. For example, skill-specific “boot camps” and on-demand, online learning venues now allow workers to obtain valuable new abilities without ever setting foot on a college campus. Their rise — and their perceived value by employers — has even spawned the term “new collar,” which emphasizes the importance of the skills workers possess rather than the traditional educational credentials they’ve earned.
Identifying the opportunities
So how can educators and admissions professionals realign their outlooks and strategies to ensure that students and their future employers alike will be satisfied with the education provided by American colleges and universities?
One common suggestion is that program leaders and campus career counselors should attempt to advance the goals of all stakeholders by helping students secure meaningful work experiences that are directly relevant to their career goals. Students may also be able to improve their career prospects before graduation by engaging in activities that help develop the “soft skills” that so many employers want them to possess. That could be achieved, for example, by signing up for writing-intensive classes and participating in team-based projects or elective service-learning initiatives.
But it’s also crucial to remember you can’t help students, employers and your institution achieve shared goals if you don’t remove barriers to learning. And that starts with the application process. Without offering the type of intuitive, responsive and personalized processes and responses today’s applicants expect, you run the risk of losing best-fit students before they even get a chance to know you.
1 Cooperative Institutional Research Program and the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2017.
3 American Association of Colleges and Universities, Selected Findings from Online Surveys of Business Executives and Hiring Managers.