Well-Prepared in Their Own Eyes

Survey finds that college students think they are being well-prepared with the skills and qualities needed for careers. Employers are dubious.

January 20, 2015
Job fair at Portland Community College

WASHINGTON -- It turns out that college students are being well-prepared for their future careers -- at least in their own minds. Ask employers, and it's a very different picture.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) asked groups of employers and college students a series of similar questions about career preparation. They could be scary reading for many students and the college educators who are trying to prepare them for careers. AACU is releasing the survey results today, in advance of the annual meeting at which the group will mark its centennial.

Student-Employer Gap on 'This Week'
Debra Humphreys of the Association of American Colleges and Universities will discuss the group's surveys Friday on "This Week," Inside Higher Ed's free news podcast. Sign up here to be notified of new "This Week" podcasts.

Consistent with past AACU surveys, this one found that employers are concerned about new graduates having a range of skills in areas like communication and team work -- and that employers aren't as obsessed as some governors with questions about students' choice of major. This year, AACU did a companion survey of college students -- 613 students at public and private two-year and four-year colleges. The employer results come from 400 respondents whose organizations have at least 25 employees and report that 25 percent or more of their new hires hold either an associate degree from a two-year college or a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college.

As shown on the bar chart below from AACU, students consistently rank themselves as prepared in areas where employers do not agree. The area where students and employers are the closest to being aligned is in staying current with new technologies, where 37 percent of employers think students are well-prepared and 46 percent of students think that. But in a number of key areas (oral communication, written communication, critical thinking, being creative), students are more than twice as likely as employers to think that students are being well-prepared. And these are the kinds of qualities that many colleges say are hallmarks of a liberal education.

"When it comes to the types of skills and knowledge that employers feel are most important to workplace success, large majorities of employers do NOT feel that recent college graduates are well prepared. This is particularly the case for applying knowledge and skills in real-world settings, critical thinking skills, and written and oral communication skills — areas in which fewer than three in 10 employers think that recent college graduates are well prepared. Yet even in the areas of ethical decision-making and working with others in teams, many employers do not give graduates high marks," the AACU report says.

Other parts of the employer survey may be more encouraging to many college educators, especially those who endorse the AACU view that there is more to college education than picking a major in a hot career field.

Employers were asked whether it was more important for new hires to have training in specific skills for a job, a "range of knowledge" or both specific skills and a range of knowledge. "Both" was the clear winner at 60 percent, followed by range of knowledge with 25 percent and specific skills at only 15 percent.

Further, the survey found that large majorities of employers at least somewhat agree with statements that suggest support for general education and a curriculum that extends beyond job training.

Employers Who Strongly or Somewhat Agree With These Statements

Statement Strongly Agree Somewhat Agree
All college students should have educational experiences that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different than their own. 59% 37%
All college students should gain an understanding of democratic institutions and values 32% 55%
Every college student should take courses that build the civil knowledge, skills and judgment essential for contributing to our democratic society. 33% 53%
Every college student should acquire broad knowledge of the liberal arts and sciences. 29% 49%
All college students should gain intercultural skills and an understanding of societies and countries outside the United States. 21% 57%




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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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