Jobs Mismatch

Should professors place a higher value on helping their students prepare for jobs?

July 19, 2013

OMAHA, NEB. -- Only 49 percent of faculty members at four-year colleges and universities believe that their graduate school training prepared them well for their jobs as professors.

Perhaps that's why, suggested John H. Pryor of the University of California at Los Angeles, many professors may not place as high a priority as do students on the role of higher education in helping them find jobs. After all, many faculty members had to find jobs and try to succeed in them without much support from those who guided their education.

But Pryor, managing director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA (which conducts numerous national surveys of students and faculty members), said that even if it's understandable that faculty members may not place a high priority on preparation for the work force, any disinterest in the subject could be dangerous to higher education. He outlined data from various surveys by his institute and others to show what he called a "mismatch" between faculty members on the one hand, and students and parents on the other.

At a time when many colleges are struggling for public support, and face new competition for students, he argued, this mismatch needs attention. (The presentation here Thursday was part of the Gallup Education Conference. Inside Higher Ed works with Gallup on surveys.)

The data Pryor reviewed showed that in surveys of students and parents, there is no question that the most important reason to go to college is to get a good job. In the latest survey of incoming freshmen at four-year colleges and universities, he noted, 88 percent agreed with this rationale, up by about 25 percent since before the recession of 2008 hit -- and by far the top reason given

It's not that faculty members don't care about helping students find jobs. But it's just not the top priority. In a 2011 survey of faculty members, the UCLA institute found the 78 percent of faculty members said that preparing students for employment was a goal for undergraduates. But that was the seventh most popular answer (respondents could pick more than one answer). More than 99 percent said that they believed a goal was to help students think critically (the most popular answer).

Other survey comparisons mentioned: More than 72 percent of incoming students but only 55 percent of faculty members believe that the chief benefit of a college education is increasing one's earning power.

The gaps also extend to more concrete curricular matters. For instance, in a new survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 78 percent of employers reported wanting to know that graduates had used real-life examples in coursework. But only 55 percent of faculty members in the UCLA survey reported doing so.

And those faculty numbers may not reflect the way students experience their education. In the UCLA survey of college seniors (just before they graduate), 42 percent said that they believed their professors had given them chances to apply classroom learning to "real life" situations, and 29 percent said that they were satisfied with the relevance of course work to real life.

Pryor noted that faculty members are quite open to leaving campus for community work, but less likely to do so when it involves corporations (which may be more crucial to employing graduates). Eighty-eight percent of faculty members believe that addressing local institutions should be an important priority for their institution, but only 49 percent believe that of working with the corporate sector.

Erin Knepler, director of the P-20 Program at the University System of Maryland, presented with Pryor and said that the results suggested that colleges and universities need to involve faculty members more in discussions of what employers want. Currently, she said, presidents might visit with CEOs, and career center officials might talk to employers, but many faculty members do not.

She said that there is in fact common ground -- the AAC&U survey of employers found that they very much want to hire people with critical thinking and communication skills, among others -- but that most faculty members aren't in direct discussion with employers.

The audience here is a mix of administrators (who seemed generally sympathetic to the message) and faculty members, some of whom were skeptical. One asked whether there was room for liberal arts faculty members in such discussions, or whether this would help only engineering or business programs. Knepler acknowledged that, to date, most such discussions have been with business and engineering professors, but said that liberal arts fields would benefit as well.

She said that it would help professors to understand what employers mean when they talk about critical thinking skills, which might not be identical to what faculty members mean.

Another faculty member, who described himself as an advocate of service learning, said that it is hard to recruit professors for such projects (which in fact help students prepare for jobs) because they don't feel rewarded. Faculty colleagues tell him that "my tenure is based on my research and I need to produce.”

He said that if college leaders define better job preparation as part of the faculty teaching role, "maybe we need to realign the discussion around policy that allows professors to be good teachers and not just great researchers," he said.

The presenters agreed.


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