Educators vs. Employers

Marilee Turscak

On February 25, Gallup, in partnership with the Lumina Foundation, released a survey that reveals a discrepancy between the opinions of business and higher-education leaders on how prepared today’s college graduates are for the work force.

If colleges had the opportunity to rate their own abilities in preparing graduates for employment, they would likely give themselves perfect scores. Similarly, if business leaders had the opportunity to critique new employers, it seems expectable that they would have high standards.

The survey, “What America Needs to Know About Higher-Education Redesign,” indicates that a mere 11 percent of business leaders “strongly agree” that recent college graduates have the skills needed to perform successfully. In contrast, a recent Gallup survey found that 96 percent of college and university leaders said they were “extremely or somewhat confident” in their institutions’ abilities to prepare students for the work force.

In 2005, USA Today reported that 64 percent of high school graduates attend college (a number that has likely escalated in recent years). In addition, a 2010 Gallup survey reported that 75% of adults agree that college is “very important.”

But if the popularity of degrees increases and college becomes a norm rather than a privilege, is it reasonable to expect that standards and expectations might plummet as a result?

Many educators advocate making college available to all people with the goal of having a highly educated and capable population. The danger, however, is that open education may lead to lower admission standards and the devaluation of the undergraduate experience as a whole.

If everyone can get into college, what does a college degree really say about a person?

The survey does not ask detailed questions about the value of a private vs. public institution, the rigor of a particular major at a particular university, or what “highly prepared” or “highly unprepared” actually mean. Nevertheless, it offers valuable insight into the overall feelings of educators and employers toward the value of higher education. In the past, when a college education was rare and difficult to obtain, an employer may have considered a college degree as a real advantage in a job candidate.

Today, more Americans (28 percent) have bachelor’s degrees than the percentage of Americans who held high school degrees in 1900 (22 percent). Despite the persistence of the general public’s esteem for higher education, bachelor’s degrees are so common that they no longer set a person apart from his peers.

While only 9% of employers said that it was “very important” where a graduate received his or her degree, 76% of Americans ranked alma maters as highly important.

Similarly, while only 28% of employers thought it was very important that graduates even possessed college degrees, 80% of general public survey-takers regarded a college degree as a very important asset.

Now that higher education has been “democratized,” more people have the opportunity to earn degrees and take charge of their college experiences. Whether these experiences leave students better prepared for the “real world” remains to be determined. Thus, what matters more than where a person went to college or what he majored in is what he did with his time on campus.

As the novelist and historian Shelby Foote wrote, “A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.” Students can either enter the library or stay in the frat house, and it is up to the employer to discern the difference.

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