A Call for Quality

American Association of Colleges and Universities

An Insufficient Education

Last fall, on behalf of the AAC&U's Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) initiative, the Harp Research Group conducted a survey of over 300 American employers who reported that at least 25% of their new hires had an associate's or bachelor's degree. The goal of 'Raising the Bar,' which was released this week, was to find out from the point of view of employers how well our nation's colleges and universities are preparing graduates for the workforce.

The results are discouraging. Only one in four employers believes that 2- and 4-year colleges are providing quality preparation for the 'global economy.' A majority of respondents believe that changes need to be made to higher education in order to meet the modern workforce's many demands, and one in five think those changes will have to be drastic.

Graph shows employers are not satisfied with preparation of recent college grads

From 'Raising the Bar: Employers' Views on College Learning in the Wake of Economic Downturn', page 6.

So what are today's students missing? The answer may surprise you: A liberal arts education. The problem is not a lack of job-oriented training, it's a lack of emphasis on the comprehensive skills a liberal education provides. The surveyed employers felt that their employees need broader skill sets and ability to acquire 'depth of knowledge.' They also felt that students needed to be better trained to conduct research and analysis, and to apply their college educations in real-world settings.

A liberal arts education offers many 'ephemeral' skills crucial to thriving in the competitive, increasingly global job market. The learning outcomes that over 50% of surveyed employers felt should be emphasized in higher education include:

  • Effective oral and written communication
  • Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills
  • Applying learned knowledge and skills to real-world settings, such knowledge to be acquired through hands-on experiences like internships
  • Analyzing and solving complex problems
  • Connecting choices and actions to ethical decisions
  • The ability to collaborate and work in diverse teams
  • Innovation and creative thinking
  • Understanding new concepts in science and technology
  • Locating, organizing and evaluating information from multiple sources
  • Understanding the global context of different situations and decisions
  • The future implications of global issues and developments
  • Working with numbers and understanding statistics
  • Understanding the U.S. in a global context
  • Understanding cultural diversity
  • Civic preparation, civic knowledge and community engagement

Student in a sea of learning

Over-Specialized Undergraduates

On the occasion of the release of the 'Raising the Bar' report, the AAC&U issued a statement titled 'The Quality Imperative: Match Ambitious Goals for College Attainment with Ambitious Vision for Learning.' The underlying principle of the statement is simple: With all the emphasis the Obama administration is placing on access and completion - i.e., just getting students into and through college - we mustn't lose sight of the quality of their education.

The report acknowledges that increasing access to higher education and improving graduation rates are necessary goals, but cautions that they are not sufficient: 'To regain our position as world leader, the United States must now work both to increase degree attainment and to improve significantly the breadth, level, and quality of students' actual learning.' (Emphasis mine.)

College grad in an interview

The statement's authors point to a narrowing trend in education as the culprit for the drop in quality. Undergraduate degree and certificate programs are becoming too specialized. The statement asserts that narrow training may prepare you for a set of very specific job tasks, but it does not effectively prepare you for life or a career. In the current economy, most people will change jobs and even fields several times over their lifetimes. Narrow training doesn't teach analytical reasoning, critical thinking or the ability to 'learn on your feet' - skills that essential to success in any career.

In fact, as the LEAP survey indicates, narrow training isn't even preparing college graduates for their first careers. Employers are looking for a wider range of skills and knowledge as they seek to assign greater responsibility to new employees. It's easier to teach well-educated employees job-specific tasks than it is to teach specifically-trained employees how to learn.

However, the statement doesn't advocate abandoning specific training altogether in higher education. As the LEAP survey notes, employers want students to learn to apply these skills in a real-world context, which is best accomplished through hands-on training. Rather, the statement calls for a 'contemporary blend of liberal and applied learning' to prepare students for the challenges of the 21st century.

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