Liberal Education

Hiring Grads: What’s Going On? Part I

This is the first installment of four on the aims of higher education.

Last month two surveys were issued that drew some attention from reporters covering higher education.

The first was called cla+: National Results, 2013-14. It was issued by the Council for Aid to Education, which in 2002 introduced a testing tool called the Collegiate Learning Assessment in order to measure the development of higher-order thinking skills in college students. This most recent report discusses the results of a new, enhanced version of the test called cla+ that was administered to nearly 32,000 students at 169 colleges and universities during 2013-14.

Reporting on the findings in the Wall Street Journal, Douglas Belkin wrote, “Four in 10 U.S. college students graduate without the complex reasoning skills to manage white-collar work, according to the results of a test of nearly 32,000 students.”

The second report that appeared last month was Falling Short: College Learning and Career Success, prepared by Hart Research Associates for Association of American Colleges and Universities. This report indicated that employers consistently rate college graduates low on a set of factors ranging from awareness of world affairs to working with people of different backgrounds to analyzing complex problems, to critical thinking, numerical literacy, oral communication, collecting and organizing information, and ethical decision-making.

Jeffery J. Selingo, writing about this report in the Washington Post’s Grade Point blog, said that employers tell him, “The best skill that students can learn in college is actually the ability to learn.”

On first glance it seems that business is now looking for college graduates who can think for themselves, set their own schedules, plan their own projects, cooperate with other independent individuals, assess their own progress and success, and grow continually on their own.

But here’s the catch: the respondents to this survey were top-level executives—CEOs, presidents, vice-presidents and the like. They may value traits of independence, but their organizations continue to seek out and hire graduates with narrow specialties, as Selingo pointed out on LinkedIn last fall:

While top executives might talk about the broad skills they seek in their workers . . . most low-level managers are hiring for a job that needs to be done today and tomorrow, not five years from now. As a result, they often look for a very specific skill set. It’s why majors such as sustainability, sports management, and social media are popular on campuses that offer such narrowly tailored degrees.

In other words, top-level management in business may see that the whirlwind of global commerce demands independent workers with good judgment and creative initiative, but low-level management still tries to hire human cogs pre-shaped to fit into the corporate machine.

If top management really wants independence and initiative, things have to change—both in business hiring practices and in the specialized training that business has typically demanded from higher education.

In Part II, we will look at how we got here and how we can begin to change things by seriously confronting the question, What is College Really For?