Only University Administrators Seem to Think They’re Doing a Good Job Preparing College Graduates for the Workforce

News and views from academia.
Feb. 27 2014 7:24 AM

Ready or Not

Are college graduates prepared for the workforce? Only university administrators seem to think so.

Failing Resume
Plenty of data have shown many students today are struggling to keep up in the workplace (if they even find jobs at all).

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

If provosts could grade themselves on how well they’re preparing students for success in the workforce, they’d give themselves an A+.

They did, sort of, in Inside Higher Ed's 2014 survey of chief academic officers. Ninety-six percent said they were doing a good job—but they may have been grading on a curve.

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In a new survey by Gallup measuring how business leaders and the American public view the state and value of higher education, just 14 percent of Americans—and only 11 percent of business leaders—strongly agreed that graduates have the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace.

“It’s such a shocking gap; it’s just hard to even say what’s going on here,” Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, said in an interview before the survey’s release at an event in Washington on Tuesday.

Some of the event’s speakers had an idea or two.

“It depends on the frame of reference,” Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University–Newark, said. When provosts are asked how they’re doing, they think of all the great things they’re doing with individual students on campus. But when you ask businesses and members of the public, they think about everyone who hasn't had the chance to go to college.

“There’s a conundrum here,” Cantor said. “On the one hand, everybody knows in a knowledge economy that a higher education credential is absolutely more critical than ever. As a result, we can be more critical of higher education than we may otherwise be.”

While the disparity in perspectives is huge, its existence is definitely not new: Plenty of other data have shown many students today are struggling to keep up in the workplace (if they even find jobs at all).

The survey includes 628 business leaders and 1,012 public citizens surveyed during November and December.

Another of the survey’s findings is both new and surprising—and was taken Tuesday with a grain of salt. Asked to rank the importance of four factors in employers’ hiring decisions, 84 percent said the amount of knowledge the candidate has in the field is very important, and 79 percent said the same of the candidate’s applied skills in the field.

The surprising part? Only 9 percent said a candidate’s alma mater is very important—and 54 percent said it’s not important. That would seem counterintuitive to many recruiters’ focus on the biggest-name institutions.

“I think they want those competency-based things, but the hiring process suggests the opposite,” commented W. Scott Swail, president and CEO of the Educational Policy Institute. “The filters that are in place well before the CEO or executive level start by filtering out institutions and institution types.”

Steve Odland, CEO at the Committee for Economic Development, admitted that many recruiters’ behavior—especially among big companies and at the entry level at least—reinforce the idea that the alma mater matters hugely. But he also said that societal messaging is at play.

“When you’re told consistently that Harvard’s No. 1, Harvard’s No. 1, Harvard’s No. 1,” Odland said, “you believe Harvard’s No. 1 and anywhere else is a step down.” (Odland’s kids went to Yale and Brown universities. “Great schools, great brand names,” he said. “Were they prepared for the business world? No.”)

Although some suggested that a lack of focus on the institution itself is a positive development, others weren’t so sure.

“I cannot get over the fact that business leaders have such a low view of where you went to school and what you majored in,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, which sponsored the survey. The finding suggests colleges aren’t doing a good enough job of showing how their graduates develop and what they bring to the table, he said.

Meanwhile, people appear to be warming up to online education. Thirty-seven percent of Americans—up from 30 percent two years ago—believe that online providers offer a high-quality education, and almost half of business leaders said they were very or somewhat likely to hire a candidate with an online degree over one with a traditional degree.

“The monopoly’s over. Learning’s been democratized,” Merisotis said, admitting that he used to be a nonbeliever in online education. “I was wrong. It’s very clear you get very high-quality outcomes now.”

Just shy of three-quarters of Americans said a degree is important to attaining a better quality of life, yet 89 percent said colleges need to change to better serve today’s students. While 67 percent believe higher education is “available,” only 23 percent think it’s affordable.

“The second that employers start to show that they value an online degree, I think we’re going to see a lot of things change,” Busteed said Tuesday. If employers and the public agree that online education is good, perhaps some of the many non-degree-holding Americans who’ve considered college but held off—about 40 percent of the public—will actually pursue it.

How productive that research was, though, is unclear. More than half of Americans said it’s difficult to access information on the quality of degree programs, and 44 percent said they had a hard time finding details about financial assistance. Somewhat fewer—38 and 31 percent, respectively—said it’s tough to find information on the price of a college and the percentage of students who’ve graduated.

The panelists disagreed on the extent to which President Obama’s proposed federal ratings system could address that issue. “I firmly believe it’s a good place to start,” Cantor said. “I’m perhaps in the minority among my colleagues on that.”

The ratings system would clearly help address the lack of information, Merisotis said. The question is: Would it provide better information? (When it comes to data on learning outcomes, he said, perhaps not.)

Somewhat surprisingly, the businessman on the panel was least receptive to the idea. “I don’t think we need a government-directed rankings system to do that,” Odland said. “I think it’s something every institution can provide.”

Busteed closed not by lamenting the many disparities in the data, but by stressing how they might be closed. “We could all start pointing fingers,” Busteed said, “or we could all just start asking a simple question: How can I help? I think this notion of shared responsibility in higher education is an important one.”

Allie Grasgreen is a student affairs and athletics reporter at Inside Higher Ed. Follow her on Twitter.