By Lois Elfman, Diverse Issues in Higher Education
Published April 7, 2021
Employers value active and applied learning experiences according to a new report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).
“How College Contributes to Workforce Success: Employer Views on What Matters Most,” is the association’s seventh survey of executives and hiring managers. AAC&U found substantial support for the outcomes and experiences of a liberal education. Conducted in partnership with Hanover Research, the report examines the answers of 496 executives and hiring managers responsible for making hiring and promotion decisions at U.S. companies that range in size and industries.
“Much of the rhetoric around devaluing higher education—liberal education in particular—is focused on issues of employability,” said Dr. Lynn Pasquerella, president of AAC&U.
Pasquerella said the findings in this report counter the narrative that higher education doesn’t prepare students for success in their careers. She said that the report shows that employers value broad based liberal education, not only in a first job, but also for advancement.
There were some shifts in employer perception from the 2018 AAC&U report. While the largest response to confidence in higher education remains “great deal of confidence,” the percentage has shifted from 49% in 2018 to 41% in 2020. The percentage of those who answered “quite a lot of confidence” grew from 14% to 26%. The percentage of employers who think a college degree is “definitely worth it” grew from 42% to 49%.
“Employers are looking for a liberal education that prepares students for more than a specific job but provides the knowledge and skills important to work across sectors,” said Pasquerella, referencing how many of the people who lost jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic were able to utilize their skills in new contexts.
Among the skills developed in a liberal education noted as being very important to employers are the ability to work effectively in teams (62%), critical thinking skills (60%) and ability to analyze and interpret data (57%). Digital literacy was also impactful with 55% of employers noting it as very important and 36% noting somewhat important.
“Employers rarely ask for transcripts,” said Pasquerella. “It doesn’t provide an indication of the skills and capacities that students actually have within the context of the workforce. But ePortfolios often demonstrate the skills, competencies and learning outcomes of students across the curriculum and co-curriculum in the context of the workforce.”
Internships and apprenticeships lead the list of things that will make employers more likely to consider hiring a candidate. Also, working in community settings, working with people of diverse backgrounds, work-study programs and global learning experience have an impact on employer decisions. Pasquerella said she hopes this report will inform legislators who make decisions about how to allocate scarce resources.
Mitchell College in Connecticut has a four-year model that includes integrated career development, said the college’s president, Dr. Tracy Y. Espy. It focuses on skills that employers seek: critical and creative thinking and analysis, problem solving, communication, technology literacy, diversity and global perspective, values, ethics and social responsibility and social interactions.
“Each year here, they have sort of a self-discovery piece,” said Espy. “They’re learning what their individual strengths and interests are. Then they start to explore some of the regional partners and get a basic look at what the career opportunities are for them.”
In their second year, Mitchell students focus on their abilities and transferable skills. They take field trips into the community—in some cases job shadowing—and they begin to network. Students’ tech skills are developed through their courses.
COVID-19 is an example of how things can change, and people need to be flexible, said Pasquerella, who added that the issues raised by the pandemic requires a multi-disciplinary approach. Resources, she added, should also be invested in training faculty to work across disciplines.
Business, industry and academia should work collaboratively within the curriculum to provide experiential learning. Pasquerella said business should fund those opportunities and engage students in real world applications of knowledge.
“Employers will see the ways in which they can partner with colleges and universities in providing opportunities for students to have internships, to work together in the classroom to create curricular opportunities so that students are prepared for work, citizenship and life,” said Pasquerella.
Espy said Mitchell has multiple community partners that provide opportunities for students. Students also access College Central Network (CCN), an interactive tool that links employers with prospective job candidates through college-based career centers. The college assists students in building their ePortfolios. This has become more crucial since traditional job fairs have been impacted by COVID-19.
“The networking really comes into place with the regional partners that we have and making sure that we as institutions clearly understand what the industry-demand credentials are,” said Espy. “What are employers telling us that they need? I think we can definitely help students to hone their skills.”One of the initiatives that Espy is developing is adding credentials and micro-credentials that students can gain within the curriculum.
“It’s creating those opportunities to build a skill set in tandem and in partnership with the curriculum,” Espy said. “It’s going to require institutions being very intentionally connected to industry.”
AAC&U analyzed the data by age, finding greater confidence in the value of a college degree among employers under 40. The plan is to further disaggregate the data to do a racial analysis.
“We’ll disaggregate the data and also do follow-up studies,” said Pasquerella. “We know that high-impact practices have a particularly positive impact on students of color, on women. We encourage all institutions to disaggregate their data on how many people are participating in high-impact practices, like internships, apprenticeships and community-based learning.”