The fierce debate about the future of higher education in America has clarified some issues even as it has polarized national thinking on the question. While most people agree that current models need rethinking, few have answered where we would be without a vibrant, multifaceted higher-education sector. Two points are critical to this discussion: stimulating informed and open conversations between the higher-education community and future employers in business and the nonprofit community, and acknowledging that higher education fails in its mission if it trains graduates only for their first postcollege job.
Our mission also includes training graduates for their future as mature and reasoning citizens, able to understand their lives, work, and interests, as well as the needs of their communities, their nation, and the larger world.
That element is missing in the recent study by the Lumina Foundation and the Gallup organization, "What America Needs to Know About Higher Education Redesign." The study attempts to discover what the broader U.S. public and business leaders think about the interface between higher education and business. In interpreting their polling data, the authors paint a bleak picture of the state of higher education, hence the redesign suggestion. But a closer look at their data yields different conclusions.
Substantial percentages of the general public characterized postsecondary education as readily available (if unaffordable for many), important, and likely to grow more critical in the future. Yet more than 70 percent of business leaders polled said they would consider hiring someone without a higher-education degree or credential, all things being equal. More than 50 percent of them said that at least half of the jobs at their companies do not require postsecondary education, and 43 percent predicted that even 10 years from now less than 50 percent of those jobs would require higher education.
The Lumina/Gallup results are in line with other studies in underscoring the importance the public places on a college’s ability to produce graduates able to get good jobs. But significantly, the public ranks faculty qualifications and degree-program quality even higher.
More is revealed if we drill down into the study. Broad polling on the link between education and employment often stresses the importance of postsecondary education in preparing graduates for a "good" job, which Lumina and Gallup do in their study. While it is hard to define a "good" job, if the goal of higher education were solely to prepare graduates for their first job, we would be failing our students, if only because in our fluid work force it is estimated that individuals hold an average of 11 jobs between ages 18 and 46.
But can we deduce what kinds of jobs were central to the Lumina/Gallup study? Nearly 70 percent of the business leaders surveyed said that it was "somewhat" to "very likely" that workers who earned a postsecondary degree while in their employ would leave for other jobs. In other words, the study is largely about entry-level jobs.
At the very least, the data disclose a number of contradictions. According to polling figures, business leaders argue that colleges are doing a poor job of preparing graduates with the skills and competencies needed for their businesses, but also believe that employees who manage to earn a college degree while on the job will very likely leave for better jobs based, one assumes, on the skills and competencies they received in colleges and universities.
So what are the skills and competencies most highly regarded by employers? Recent studies by Northeastern University and the American Association of Colleges and Universities found that a large majority of employers are looking for college graduates with broadly applicable skills like oral and written communications, a capacity to think critically, solve complex problems, take responsibility, and innovate, as well as people who demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity. Specific industry experience ranks much lower.
Lumina’s open-ended question yielded a more fragmented picture, but similar skills emerged as important: communication, writing, problem-solving and people skills, and critical thinking. Yet when asked to rate the factors managers consider in hiring decisions, 79 percent found the candidate’s applied skills in the field "very important," as did 84 percent in terms of the candidate’s knowledge in the field. Again, employers seem to be of two minds.
It is possible that the polling reveals a split between hiring managers who hire for a specific job while corporate chief executives express a greater interest in a package of broad competencies and specific skills for the long term. Certainly, the fact that most leaders polled say that their employees will move on once they get a college degree suggests this divide.
Where, then, does the Lumina/Gallup poll leave those of us in higher education? In the first place, we would agree with the 88 percent of those polled who favor an increased level of collaboration between higher education and businesses. We hope that this conversation will lead to more internships and other experiences that can provide our students with meaningful opportunities to explore career paths.
Second, a deep reading of the Lumina/Gallup data doesn’t support those organizations’ reported conclusions that employers will be looking increasingly for workers with a targeted skill set and that a college degree in and of itself will not be important. Our reading is that employers are still looking for those characteristics that have long been central to a liberal-arts education: skills of communication and critical thinking, innovation and collaboration, integrity and responsibility.
These qualities come not just from a single class but from a thoughtful and purposeful education. To the extent that these skills can be paired with experiential learning and creative problem-solving pedagogies, we will be preparing our graduates not just for their first jobs but for their future lives, which will very likely involve multiple jobs and career changes.
Finally, we believe, with the historian William Cronon, that education should "aspire to nurture the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom." It is the responsibility of all colleges and universities not just to teach their students calculus and U.S. history but to help them answer the question of what kind of life might be meaningful, productive, and rewarding. This mission serves not only our students, but employers, communities, and nation.