Liberal Education Students

Hiring Grads: What’s Going On? Part II

This is the second of four installments on the aims of higher education.

In Part I of this four-part series we saw that top-level executives say they want independent thinkers and self-determining workers for their companies, whereas their hiring managers go after specialized workers who can perform narrowly targeted tasks.

The attitude of the hiring managers has been in force for decades. American higher education had always been engaged in a tug-of-war between liberal learning and job training, but the latter started to get the upper hand about four decades ago. Scott Carlson noted this historical development in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education recounting a conversation with John Thelin, a prominent historian of higher education at the University of Kentucky:

By the 1970s, Mr. Thelin says, college presidents had honed a pitch for state legislatures and citizen groups: Higher education is good for the state economy, and if you want your daughters and sons to be prepared to take their place in that economy, it behooves them to have a higher education. And at the time, the pitch was true.

But they were beginning to tie academe to a return on investment, setting up an approach to measuring college’s value in paychecks. “That’s where they mortgaged themselves,” Mr. Thelin says. “They took a short-run triumph but now have a long-term consequence by emphasizing the job payoff.”

This stance of many college presidents aligned neatly with the agendas of many politicians during the ensuing decades, who (for various reasons, some business-related and some not) wanted higher education to drop its pretensions and see itself as they saw it—that is, as the job-training arm of the American workforce.

When higher education itself started joining in on the side of business leaders and politicians, the balance of tension quickly swung to the side of job training. It wasn’t long before society was largely persuaded that education is, and ought to be, utilitarian. Education’s ultimate purpose, according to this view, is to prepare young people to perform various roles in the nation’s economic system.

Under these conditions, the attitude of the hiring managers has general societal support. The managers expect to find college graduates with specific skill sets. Society expects colleges to train students in specific skills that match the needs of the hiring managers. And many colleges have been scrambling for decades to detect in-demand skill sets as they arise and devise courses of study to match them. Is it any wonder, then, that hiring managers have come to expect graduates to have the skills they need, and that they complain when they can’t find enough specially trained graduates to meet their needs?

So why is it that business today is finding neither the narrowly skilled graduates demanded by the managers nor the broadly educated and independent workers preferred by the executives?

We will take up this question in Part III.