Most families know that if our children are to have a shot at a decent future, a college degree has never been more important. It’s also never been more expensive. Within this pressure cooker of college admission, there has been a lot of heated debate over whether colleges are adequately preparing its graduates for the job market. We’ve seen the headlines: “8 Ways College Could Better Prepare Students for the Job Search,” “Employers Say College Graduates Lack Job Skills,” “Too Many Students, Too Few Jobs.” The picture is of colleges aloft in the clouds teaching Homer and Herodotus while Earth-bound employers are shouting, “More Quantitative Analysis! More Advanced Computer Programming!”
Are colleges producing successful job applicants? To answer this question, American Public Media’s Marketplace teamed up with The Chronicle of Higher Education to survey 700 employers (“The Role of Higher Education in Career Development: Employer Perceptions,” December, 2012). Nearly a third gave “poor” or “fair” marks to colleges and this became the story. The fact that nearly two-thirds of employers say that colleges are doing a “good” or “excellent” job did not make the headlines. Lesson to future media employees: catastrophe sells, success does not.
Nonetheless, if one-third of prospective employers give colleges between a C and an F in preparing students for the job market, we need to pay attention. How are colleges failing? It turns out that employers are saying something quite different from what we would expect. Here are some key findings from the report:
- When it comes to the skills needed by employers, job candidates are lacking most in written and oral communication, adaptability, managing multiple priorities, and problem solving.
- Colleges and universities should seek to break down the false dichotomy of liberal arts and career development – they are intrinsically linked.
- Colleges and universities should support rich experiential opportunities that integrate the liberal arts with real-world learning. This would enhance the communication skills and problem solving skills that are in such high demand.
- Colleges should go beyond a vision of majors articulating to specific careers. Majors matter to some extent, but in many cases, college major is not the determinant of career entry.
There are many more conclusions to read in the report, but the message is clear. Employers are looking for college graduates who can think globally, communicate effectively, prioritize, and problem-solve. They are fully endorsing the liberal arts as the best approach to learning at the college level, and they are encouraging students to take advantage of internships and other creative ways of integrating their studies with real-world experience.
In his recent book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Andrew Delbanco makes a fascinating and scholarly argument for the importance of the liberal arts in higher education. The most memorable line in his book may be his quote of Judith Shapiro, who at the time was president of Barnard College. When speaking to a group of young people about what they should expect from college, she said this: “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” We’ve now learned that it will also help you get hired.