How College Contributes to Workforce Success: Employer Views on What Matters Most

By Ashley Finley – Published April 2021 in AAC&USubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) partnered with Hanover Research to conduct a survey in October 2020 with 496 executives and hiring managers at companies of a variety of sizes and types in which 25% of entry-level jobs are occupied by employees with two- or four-year degrees. We highlight what we believe are some of the most salient results of the survey. 

Part One: “Employer Views on Higher Education and Workforce Preparedness”
In an effort to understand how much employers value the characteristics of college graduates, the October 2020 survey explored employers’ views on learning outcomes, mindsets, and personal capacities. 

“Certain active and applied educational experiences [identified as “high-impact practices’] can have a demonstrably positive impact on students by improving their engagement and deepening their learning.” While employers find worth in these educational experiences, “internships lead the list of what makes employers much more likely to consider hiring a candidate.” 

Long-term career success was also addressed. Employers were presented with descriptions of the characteristics of an undergraduate education that are considered “hallmarks of a liberal education.” Hallmarks considered “very important” were: “encouraging students to think for themselves,” “an emphasis on non-technical skills,” and “adequately building technical skills for employment.” 

“Only two in five employers believe it is ‘very important’ for a college education to include ‘exposure to a wide range of academic topics/disciplines,’ ‘fostering a sense of social justice,’ ‘a focus on global issues,’ or ‘an emphasis on the liberal arts.’”

Eighty-seven percent of employers reported that “recent college graduates are either ‘somewhat effective’ or ‘very effective’ in communicating about the skills and knowledge they gained in college.” In particular, ePortfolios used by graduates to showcase their skills were seen by employers as “somewhat useful” or “very useful” during the hiring process.

Eighty-seven percent of employers were “somewhat satisfied” with college graduates’ capacity “to apply the skills and knowledge learned in college to complex problems in the workplace.”  Forty-nine percent were “very satisfied.” Additionally, “six in ten employers believe that college graduates possess the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in entry-level positions, and just over half (55 percent) believe they possess the knowledge and skills required for advancement and promotion.”

Part Two: “How Employers Views Vary by Age and Educational Attainment”
The findings in Part Two covered “the importance of recognizing how differences among employers, specifically in terms age and educational attainment, correlate with variations in their views regarding the value of higher education, the competencies and experiences that matter most for workforce success, and the levels of preparedness among recent graduates.”

In brief, the value of a college degree and graduates’ preparedness for success are viewed more favorably by employers who are younger and have higher levels of educational accomplishments. Employers under age 40 were the most satisfied with college graduates’ skills and preparedness. The views of employers related to skills and mindsets necessary for workplace success “vary significantly by age and level of educational attainment.” Employers under age 40 “were more likely to view empathy and leadership as ‘very important’ for college graduates than employers aged 50 and above.” 

Employers who are younger and have higher levels of educational accomplishments “see greater value in civic skill-building, community-based and global experiences, and the civic and liberal arts emphasis of a liberal education.” The most significant differences were between the oldest and youngest employers.

However, as noted in an AAC&U news release, “employers under forty and those with postgraduate education were also the most likely groups to have ‘very little’ confidence in higher education.

“One possible explanation may be that employers under the age of forty are the oldest millennials,” Finley writes. “Members of this generation, the most highly educated in US history, may be expected to value the college degree, but they also came of age during a financial crisis that produced widespread skepticism in public institutions.”

AAC&U contends that “employers favor liberally educated job candidates.”  Hence, as American higher education experiences transformation and change in a global economy, “this report strongly suggests that a liberal education will pay off for students on the road ahead.”

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