It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success: Overview and Key Findings

A National Survey of Business and Non Profit Leaders

Especially since the recent economic downturn and in light of the increasingly competitive global economy, employers express concerns about whether the U.S. is producing enough college graduates and whether they have the skills, knowledge, and personal responsibility to contribute to a changing workplace and help companies and organizations succeed and grow.  This report provides a detailed analysis of employers’ priorities for the kinds of learning today’s college students need to succeed in this innovation-fueled economy.  It also reports on changes in educational and assessment practices that employers recommend.

This report is part of a series on surveys and focus groups that the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has commissioned since 2005, when it began its national initiative, Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP).  These employer and civic leader studies have informed the work of hundreds of colleges and universities and state systems as they seek to develop strong curricula and educational practices that will better prepare today’s students for success as workers and citizens in the 21st century.

Innovation a Priority

  • Nearly all employers surveyed (95 percent) say they give hiring preference to college graduates with skills that will enable them to contribute to innovation in the workplace.
  • 92 percent agree that “innovation is essential” to their organization’s continued success.

Cross-Cutting Capacities vs. Choice of Undergraduate Major

  • Nearly all those surveyed (93 percent) say that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.”
  • More than 9 in 10 of those surveyed say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.
  • More than 75% of employers say they want more emphasis on 5 key areas including: critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.
  • Employers endorse several educational practices as potentially helpful in preparing college students for workplace success.  These include practices that require students to a) conduct research and use evidence-based analysis; b) gain in-depth knowledge in the major and analytic, problem solving and communication skills; and c) apply their learning in real-world settings.

Continued Importance of Liberal Education and the Liberal Arts

  • The majority of employers agree that having both field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of skills and knowledge is most important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success.  Few think that having field-specific knowledge and skills alone is what is most needed for individuals’ career success.
  • 80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, all college students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.
  • When read a description of a 21st-century liberal education*, a large majority of employers recognize its importance; 74 percent would recommend this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.

Assessment of Preparation for Entry-Level Positions and for Advancement

  • A majority of employers (56 percent) express satisfaction with the job colleges and universities are doing to prepare graduates for success in the workplace, but more than two in five indicate room for improvement.
  • Two in three employers believe most college graduates have the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in entry-level positions, but only 44 percent believe they have what is required for advancement and promotion to higher levels.

A Blended Model of Liberal and Applied Learning

  • Across many areas tested, employers strongly endorse educational practices that involve students in active, effortful work—practices including collaborative problem-solving, internships, senior projects, and community engagements.  Employers consistently rank outcomes and practices that involve application of skills over acquisition of discrete bodies of knowledge.  Employers also strongly endorse practices that require students to demonstrate both acquisition of knowledge and its application.

E-portfolios and Partnerships to Ensure College Graduates’ Successful Transition to the Workplace

  • In addition to a resume or college transcript, more than 4 in 5 employers say an electronic portfolio would be useful to them in ensuring that job applicants have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in their company or organization.
  • Business and non-profit leaders are highly interested in partnering with colleges and universities to provide more hands-on learning opportunities and to help college students successfully make the transition from college into the workplace.

*Definition of liberal education provided in this survey: “This approach to a college education provides both broad knowledge in a variety of areas of study and knowledge in a specific major or field of interest.  It also helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as intellectual and practical skills that span all areas of study, such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

Methodology

From January 9 to 13, 2013, Hart Research Associates conducted an online survey among 318 employers whose organizations have at least 25 employees and report that 25% or more of their new hires hold either an associate degree from a two-year college or a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college.  Respondents are executives at private sector and nonprofit organizations, including owners, CEOs, presidents, C-suite level executives, and vice presidents.

Download the Key Findings

Source: It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. 2013. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities and Hart Research Associates.