Higher Education, Academic Quality and Job Readiness

Does higher education prepare students for the workforce? Should it? If so, how? These questions, resounding clearly across higher ed, government, and employers over the past few years, have existed for as long as I can remember. On a decision tree, they would branch off from the trunk of the question, how is the quality of higher education defined?

Related to this question of defining quality is that of who defines quality? Is it the government and, in particular, the Department of Education? Higher education accreditors? Faculty, students, parents or employers? Or is /should it be a combination of all these stakeholders? These are questions that were addressed by Brandon Busteed, executive director of education and workforce development for Gallup, Inc., in a presentation to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation on February 1 in Washington, D.C. This post features some interesting related insights and questions requiring further exploration.  His main starting point was that students attend college and parents send students to college “to get a good job,” with the additional rationale “to make more money.” So, what questions do we as higher education leaders and instructors need to ask ourselves and our colleagues?

The first question to be addressed and echoed in Busteed’s presentation: Is there a broken link between higher education and work?” He cited a recent Gallup study reporting that: 99% of chief academic officers rate their institution as effective at preparing students for work; 13% of Americans strongly agree that college graduates are well prepared for success in the workplace; and 11% of business leaders strongly agree that graduating students have skills and competencies needed by their businesses. How is it that chief academic officers (I was one for many years) and we as university leaders are so seemingly disconnected from this reality? More importantly, what can we do about it?

From our industry advisory councils at APUS, we learn (and the presentation further confirmed this insight) that employers want some relevant work experience in order to demonstrate that students can apply what they learn. How do we accomplish this, and what methods and learning resources do we have to do so?

Students can use e-portfolios to create a portfolio of artifacts starting day one of their college education. But how do those artifacts demonstrate application of learning? Assignments to address the question of “so what,” need to be designed and required in each and every class, either through scenario- or problem-based learning. The question I heard often is, but how do we do that in liberal arts classes aimed at developing the whole person? “So what” is even more relevant here as businesses state they need a workforce that is collaborative, has effective relationship-building skills and includes competent problem-solvers and critical thinkers. Each and every discipline and related course can have a “so what” component and/or assignment that can then be added to the student’s lifelong portfolio that they can then share with prospective employers or use to support career advancement.

Apprenticeships, internships and/or job experience as a program requirement are part of many programs and could be added to even more. These opportunities provide experiential and deep learning in support of student success. When students were asked by Gallup about these types of experiences, Busteed reported that 32% of students responded that they had in-class, long-term projects taking a semester or more to complete, while 30% had internships or job assignments where they applied learning. Extra- or co-curricular activity leadership and involvement was added to this categorical question, with 20% of students noting that they were extremely involved.” Even more notably, six percent of all students responded that they were involved in all three of these activities.

Are we missing the boat by not facilitating and requiring more of these structured learning experiences to validate mastery of applied learning–that is, taking what is learned in the classroom and enhancing their skills and capabilities as citizens and productive members of the workforce? I daresay, yes.

What other indicators are there of student success in the workforce? Busteed cited Gallup results on student engagement, i.e, 64% of students replied that at least one professor excited them about learning; with 27% reporting that professors cared about them as a person; and 22% that they had a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams. Aren’t we as educators, faculty and staff each tasked to demonstrate achievement of learning outcomes? Isn’t our students’ collective success in both work and in life evidence of this? In short, holistically mentoring, coaching and caring for our students as persons is just as instrumental to our success in higher education as it is to their success in career advancement.

Busteed’s research results resonate in both my heart and mind as a leader in higher education as we strive to address the critical questions of student success, job readiness, and the need to evaluate learning outcomes in new and innovative ways that make a difference in, and for, our world. I am grateful for the questions, the results and time to ponder these essential questions with an eye to resolving what we must we do differently for and with our students, faculty, and employers to effect truly positive, meaningful change for the future.

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