Education Leaders: Time to Rethink What a College Degree Promises

Colleges and businesses need to work together to fill the gap between hiring expectations and realities, new data suggest.

Job seekers meet with a recruiter during a job and career fair at City College of San Francisco on May 30, 2013, in San Francisco.

New data suggest a large gap between what employers expect of college graduates and how colleges believe they are preparing students.

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Although a large majority of business leaders prioritize a candidate's knowledge and skills over a college pedigree, many large companies' hiring practices suggest the opposite. Finding a solution to the frustration of both business leaders and college graduates may require colleges and universities to rethink what a degree guarantees – and to be more transparent about those promises – a panel of higher education experts said Tuesday. 

A poll conducted by Gallup and Lumina Foundation, released Tuesday, found 84 percent of business leaders said the amount of knowledge of potential hires is very important, while 28 percent said a candidate's college major is important and just 9 percent said where the candidate received his or her degree is very important.

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Still, most business leaders are unsatisfied with the pool of applicants, the survey found. While nearly all – 96 percent – of chief academic officers surveyed in a previous poll said they are confident that they've prepared graduates to be successful in the workplace, just 11 percent of business leaders surveyed in the new Gallup/Lumina poll agreed with that statement.

The American public as a whole also reported a gap between the importance of a college education and how well colleges and universities are doing in terms of serving students. Seventy-four percent said a college education is important to attaining a better quality of life, and 90 percent said it's important to increase the number of Americans with a postsecondary education. But 89 percent still said colleges need to change in order to better serve students, and about half (49 percent) said they see evidence of that change happening.

The disconnect may come from the fact that colleges and universities are not transparent enough about what exactly they're preparing students for, while the public has not articulated clearly what higher education could do differently, said Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark, at Tuesday's event for the release of the survey. 

"Americans … are looking from the outside in," Cantor said. "They're really asking the hard questions about how inclusive higher education is and whether our preparation is specific to the kinds of jobs that are out there that will really make higher education credentials a private gain as well as a public good."

But neither the academic leaders nor the business leaders were right about the job colleges are doing in preparing students for the workforce, she said.

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"This is not about higher education doing it by itself, nor is it about the public being able to stand back and say, 'What are you providing?'" Cantor said. "It's really … about collaboration."

Steve Odland, chief executive officer of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Committee for Economic Development, said the differences in viewpoints was not surprising, given the fact that institutions of higher education and businesses often have very different missions. Odland has served as the CEO of several large companies, and also worked as an adjunct professor in the business graduate schools at Florida Atlantic University and Lynn University.

"In academia, I think the objectives that we had were to teach people to think," Odland said. "And I think in the business world, our objectives were to find people who had the skill sets that were requisite for the job position that we needed." 

Odland said the even larger disparity between expectations and realities was apparent among entry-level applicants, who often lacked necessary and basic business skills. In those situations, he said business leaders likely would prioritize which college an applicant attended over the knowledge and skills he or she had. 

"We were having to retrain all the students fresh from undergraduate programs in how to make presentation skills, how to write for a business, sometimes how to dress and interact with customers," Odland said. "Once you're looking for somebody with 10 or more years of experience … it didn't matter. They could have had an online degree, they could have had no degree. We hired executives with no college degree, but [who] had the requisite business skills and experience, and that was more important." 

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Jamie Merisotis, president and chief executive officer of Lumina Foundation, said the large gaps shown in the data should serve as a wake-up call to the country's higher education system that "we are either not doing a very good job of articulating what we are doing … or what we are producing is not nearly good enough to meet their needs, or some combination of the two."

"To me, it really cries out for the need to increase the learning outcome-based focus of what we're doing in higher education," Merisotis said. "We've got to really articulate how we produce people who are prepared for good jobs, and how they ultimately do have a better life as a result of their attendance at our higher education institutions."