Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work

Author: 
Hart Research Associates, on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities
January
2019
Volume: 
22
Number: 
1
Learning Abstracts

Overview

Both executives and hiring managers express a higher degree of confidence in colleges and universities than does the American public, and the majority feel satisfied with recent college graduates’ ability to apply the skills and knowledge they learned in college to complex problems in the workplace.

Business executives and hiring managers agree on the importance and value of college. Indeed, executives and hiring managers largely are aligned in their priorities for college learning and their perceptions of recent college graduates’ preparedness and ability to succeed in the workplace.

However, higher proportions of both executives and hiring managers say that recent graduates have the skills to succeed in entry-level positions than say that recent graduates have the skills needed to advance or be promoted. Majorities think that colleges and universities need to make improvements to ensure that their graduates possess the skills and knowledge needed for workplace success at the entry level, and especially for advancement.

When hiring, executives and hiring managers place a high priority on graduates’ demonstrated proficiency in skills and knowledge that cut across majors, and hiring managers are closely aligned with executives in the importance that they place on key college learning outcomes. The college learning outcomes that both audiences rate as most important include oral communication, critical thinking, ethical judgment, working effectively in teams, working independently, self motivation, written communication, and real-world application of skills and knowledge.

However, executives and hiring managers see recent college graduates as underprepared in the skills and knowledge areas that they deem most important, even though some improvement has occurred in executives’ assessment of recent graduates’ preparedness since five years ago.

  • Among the college learning outcomes tested, both executives and hiring managers place the highest importance on the ability to communicate orally, but only 40% of executives and 47% of hiring managers rate recent college graduates as well prepared in this area.
  • Both audiences value applied experiences and real-world skills, but only 33% of executives and 39% of hiring managers think that recent graduates are very well prepared to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings.

Despite these gaps, executives and hiring managers say that recent college graduates are fairly effective in communicating about the skills and knowledge they have gained in college that will be important for workplace success. And they find ePortfolios more helpful than college transcripts and resumes alone when evaluating and hiring recent graduates.

Executives and hiring managers reveal expectations for continued learning among their employees with a focus toward advancement. Majorities of both audiences report that their companies offer some form of professional development—with most saying that these opportunities include training in more advanced skills that will allow employees to take on more responsibility. In partnering with colleges and universities, they say that their companies most commonly do so to offer service learning opportunities, internships, and/or apprenticeships—underscoring their focus on applied learning and real-world experiences.

Key Findings

The Value of a College Degree

One

Business executives and hiring managers express a higher degree of confidence in colleges and universities than does the American public. Among both executives and hiring managers, 63% express quite a lot or a great deal of confidence in colleges and universities—a notably higher proportion than among the general public. In a January 2018 Gallup poll, 45% of adults nationwide expressed a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in colleges and universities.

Two

Business executives and hiring managers agree on the value of college: they believe that it is both important and worth the time and money involved.

Strong majorities of executives (82%) and hiring managers (75%) believe that it is very important or absolutely essential for individuals today to complete a college education. This includes one in four (26%) hiring managers and an even higher proportion of business executives (33%, a statistically significant difference) who say that a college education is absolutely essential.1

Additionally, an overwhelming 88% of executives and 85% of hiring managers consider the money and time involved in getting a college degree to be worthwhile.

When asked to describe the value of a college degree in an open-ended question, both executives and hiring managers most commonly cite the accumulation of knowledge, development of critical thinking and analytical skills regardless of profession, potential for increased earnings, and focus on a goal as factors that make it useful or important for an individual to obtain a college degree today.

Three

Business executives and hiring managers indicate satisfaction with recent graduates’ ability to apply the skills and knowledge they learned in college in the workplace, but they think that recent graduates are better prepared to succeed in entry-level positions than to advance. Among both audiences, majorities believe that colleges and universities need to make improvements to ensure that college graduates possess the skills and knowledge needed for workplace success at the entry level and especially for advancement.

At a time when majorities of executives (56%) and hiring managers (54%) say that it is difficult to fill open positions at their companies, a promising 71% of executives and 74% of hiring managers express satisfaction with recent college graduates’ ability to apply the skills and knowledge they learned in college to complex problems in the workplace. They see room for improvement, however, as only 15% of executives and 13% of hiring managers are very satisfied with recent graduates’ ability in this regard.

Slightly higher proportions of executives and hiring managers in the Midwest and West than in the Northeast and South say recent graduates have the skills and knowledge to succeed at the entry level. Lower proportions of both audiences in the Northeast feel that recent graduates have the skills and knowledge to advance or be promoted.

Majorities of executives (56%) and hiring managers (53%) believe that colleges and universities need to make improvements to ensure graduates’ success at the entry level. Even larger proportions (65% of executives and 65% of hiring managers) feel that improvements are needed to ensure that graduates have the skills and knowledge needed to advance within their company.

Priorities for College Learning and Sense of Graduates’ Preparedness

Four

When hiring recent graduates, business executives and hiring managers place a high priority on demonstrated proficiency in a variety of skills and knowledge areas that cut across majors.

Respondents were asked to rate how important it is for recent college graduates they are hiring to demonstrate proficiency in a list of 15 skills and knowledge areas. Most of these are broad skills that apply across disciplines, and many rank as high priorities.

Top-tier college learning outcomes: The skill and knowledge areas of greatest importance to both business executives and hiring managers when hiring include oral communication, critical thinking, ethical judgment, working effectively in teams, working independently, self-motivation, written communication, and real-world application of skills and knowledge (each ranked by large majorities as very important, with a rating of eight, nine, or 10 on a zero-to-10 scale).

Second-tier college learning outcomes: Slightly less important outcomes, while still rated highly, include locating, organizing, and evaluating information from multiple sources, analyzing complex problems, working with people from different backgrounds, being innovative and creative, and staying current on changing technologies. Only slightly more than half of executives and hiring managers deem the ability to work with numbers and statistics as very important, and only about one in four prioritize proficiency in languages other than English.

Business executives have shown a slight decline in the high importance they assign to most outcomes since 20143, and their rankings of outcomes remain largely the same. However, notable increases have occurred in the level of importance that they place on recent graduates’ ability to analyze and solve problems with people from different backgrounds and cultures (a nine-point increase since 2014) and their ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources (a five-point increase).

Five

Notable gaps emerge between the importance that both business executives and hiring managers place on key learning outcomes and their sense that recent graduates are prepared in these areas.

Respondents were asked to rate how prepared recent college graduates are across the same list of 15 college learning outcomes. Executives and hiring managers generally agree in their sense of college graduates’ preparedness across outcomes.

While encouraging improvement has occurred in executives’ sense of college graduates’ preparedness since 2014, there still is notable room for improvement across learning outcomes, particularly in many of the very skills employers deem most important for workplace success.

Six

Business executives and hiring managers indicate that participation in applied and project-based learning experiences—particularly internships or apprenticeships—gives recent college graduates an edge.

Seven

Business executives and hiring managers find electronic portfolios that summarize and demonstrate a candidate’s accomplishments in key skill and knowledge areas more useful than college transcripts alone in evaluating recent graduates’ potential to succeed in the workplace.

Large majorities of both audiences (64% of business executives and 70% of hiring managers) report that recent college graduates are at least fairly effective in communicating about the skills and knowledge they have gained in college that will be important for workplace success, but the mode of communication makes a difference.

Eight

Most business executives and hiring managers report that their companies provide a broad variety of professional development opportunities, and most say that these opportunities include training in more advanced skills that will allow employees to take on more responsibility.

The vast majority of both executives (79%) and hiring managers (79%) say that their companies provide professional development opportunities to their employees. Those at larger companies (with 500 or more employees) are significantly more likely to say that their companies offer professional development, but large majorities of those at smaller companies with 25 to 99 employees do as well.

Executives in the Northeast are slightly more likely to say their employers offer professional development opportunities, and hiring managers in the Midwest are also slightly more likely to say so.

Majorities of executives (59%) and hiring managers (53%) say that their companies partner with colleges and universities in some way, most commonly to offer service learning opportunities, internships, and/or apprenticeships—underscoring the weight that employers place on applied experience and real-world skills when evaluating college graduates. Smaller shares of executives and hiring managers say that their companies partner with colleges and universities in other ways, revealing opportunities for greater collaboration between employers and institutions on professional development.

  1. It is worth noting that nearly all business executives and most hiring managers have earned a college degree, including 91% of business executives and 73% of hiring managers who have a four-year degree or more education.
  2. Results from the 2013 report "It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success"
  3. Results from the 2015 report "Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success"

This issue of Learning Abstracts is a summary of the Association of American Colleges and Universities report, Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work, Selected Findings from Online Surveys of Business Executives and Hiring Managers ©2018. Click here to read the full report.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.