Over 50 years ago, with the creation of Pell Grants and federal student loan programs, college access became a national priority for higher education. In the last decade, a broad agreement has emerged that institutions also need to do more to help students complete their degrees. These targets of college access and completion are now taken for granted as guiding goals for postsecondary institutions.
But institutions now need to focus more on a third key goal for our students: employment readiness. Fortunately, a shift is already under way as institutions focus on all three components: college access, completion and employment readiness.
Many in the academy have long recognized the need to broaden college access for the millions of students lacking the financial means to pursue higher education. Pell Grants and federal student loans built upon the successful GI Bill in broadening college access.
Increasing college completion is imperative, too. Several years ago, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and many others in the higher education community made the push to increase the number of students completing their degrees. The Obama administration greatly elevated the issue on a national stage. And Lumina Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other philanthropic organizations were -- and continue to be -- critical in advocating for and helping institutions scale innovative approaches that improve graduation rates.
Today, nearly everyone speaks in terms of both college access and completion -- and with good reason. Data show that students from the lowest quarter of the income distribution still account for just 10 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded. Our work is far from done.
The higher education community, along with our partners in government and philanthropy, now needs to increase efforts to address employment readiness. Some inside and outside our community have argued this for some time. In survey after survey, students are clear that improved employment opportunities and increased earnings are top reasons they decided to attend college. Employers are also concerned about finding recent graduates with the knowledge and skills necessary to excel in the workplace. Over the past few years, higher education has begun to increase its focus on students’ employment readiness.
In response, some have argued a focus on employment readiness cheapens the true value of a college degree. The purpose of a four-year college degree, they contend, is to provide students a broad general education. Efforts to bolster work-force readiness thus reduce the true value of a four-year degree.
Yet the debate between a broad education and employment readiness offers a false choice. Many universities have long considered employment readiness an important part of their mission. The Morrill Act of 1862 envisioned a practical education for agriculture and mechanics alongside a general education in subjects such as the humanities. That vision reflected the fact that practical and general education complement each other.
Of course, there is significant overlap between a general education and employment readiness. Critical thinking, the ability to communicate well, proficiency in math and the capacity to deal with new ideas are gained through a general education, but they have a clear practical application. These skills prepare students for their first job as well as career success throughout their lives.
No matter students’ majors, they stand to benefit greatly from work-based learning experiences and employment-focused credentials that bolster their employment readiness. Survey data tell us employers prize practical experience in graduates who hope to join the work force.
And employment-focused credentials help students gain a leg up in the labor market by gaining highly valuable skills that can be directly applied in the work force. Such credentials also help workers adapt to shifting demands by updating their skills throughout their careers. Institutions can and should work to expand these work-based learning opportunities and employment-focused credentials to strengthen the employment readiness of their graduates.
That’s why APLU recently released a paper, “Ready for Jobs, Career and a Lifetime,” examining the false choice between general versus practical education. The paper outlines some of the ways that universities are incorporating employment readiness across undergraduate education through internships, employment-focused minors and certificate programs. The paper also lays out other steps institutions can take to better prepare their students for success in their careers and lives.
Fortunately, institutions are deeply interested in boosting the employment readiness of their graduates. Time and again in conversations across the country, presidents and chancellors have underscored their commitment to improving students’ employment readiness. That widespread commitment will no doubt spark creative new ways to incorporate employment readiness into a four-year college education. And crucially, that broad-based commitment will usher in a new era of higher education focused on access, completion and employment readiness.