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Debra Humphreys, Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs
Office: 202-884-7422
Cell: 202-486-3958

Employers Seek More College-Educated Workers With Higher Levels of Learning and Broader Sets of Skills, New Survey Reveals

AAC&U Board of Directors Issues Statement on “The Quality Imperative”— Calls for Nation to Match Ambitious Goals for Completion with Ambitious Vision for College-Level Learning

Washington, DC—January 20, 2010—At a press briefing this afternoon, the Association of American Colleges and Universities released new findings from a national survey of employers conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates.  This survey builds on and amplifies earlier research commissioned as part of AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative.

In conjunction with the release of new polling data, AAC&U’s board of directors also released a formal statement, “The Quality Imperative,” calling for much greater attention to what students actually learn in college and for efforts to raise levels of achievement, even as the nation focuses on increasing access and completion rates.

“It is very clear from our survey of employers that higher education needs to increase not only the numbers of students who graduate, but the levels of learning they obtain in college,” said AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider. 

Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter, who previewed the AAC&U statement, noted that, “Increasing students’ access to college and the numbers of students who graduate with a degree or credential are crucial goals for American society.  But it is equally important that we give new attention to the quality and level of students’ learning in college.  We welcome the new determination in higher education to make learning outcomes a driving focus for campus effort and attention.”

The AAC&U board notes in its statement that “public policy cannot simply assume that program completion and high-level student achievement on key learning outcomes are one and the same.”  The statement urges attention to broadening the educational focus for all students, suggesting that “narrow training—the kind currently offered in far too many degree and certificate programs—will actually limit human talent and opportunity for better jobs in today’s knowledge economy.”

The report, Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn, (pdf) includes the following key findings:

-A large majority of employers expect to either keep staffing levels steady or increase hiring in the next twelve months; 38 percent of respondents expect to increase hiring levels.

-Employers indicate that their greatest increase in emphasis will be on hiring graduates from four-year colleges.  Twenty-eight percent indicate that they will put more emphasis on hiring people with four-year college degrees; only 5 percent indicate an increasing emphasis on hiring those with a high school degree.

-Only one in four employers believe that colleges, community colleges, and universities are doing a good job of preparing college graduates for the demands of the global economy.  A majority of employers believe that two- and four-year colleges need to make improvements to prepare students effectively for the challenges of today’s global economy.

-Employers are looking to their employees to use a broader set of skills and possess higher levels of learning and knowledge than in the past to meet the increasingly complex demands of the workplace.  More than 90 percent agree that their company is asking employees to take on more responsibilities and to use a broader set of capacities than in the past.

-Employers see positive benefit in educational innovations that foster active learning and research skills.  Eighty-four percent believe that requiring students to complete senior projects would help in preparing students for future success.  Eighty-one percent believe that developing students’ research skills and ability to conduct evidence-based analysis would also help.

-Employers believe that colleges should be placing more emphasis on a set of essential learning outcomes.  Those they believe are most in need of increased focus are: written and oral communication; critical thinking and analytic reasoning; the application of knowledge and skills in real-world settings; complex problem solving; ethical decision making, and teamwork skills.

-A majority of employers also want colleges to increase emphasis on such learning outcomes as: innovation, knowledge of science and technology, information literacy, global knowledge, and quantitative reasoning.

These findings are based on a telephone survey conducted in October and November of 2009 by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, who surveyed 302 executives at private sector and nonprofit organizations that have twenty-five or more employees and report that at least 25 percent of their new hires hold either a two-year or four-year college degree.  The margin of error for the survey is +/-5.7 percentage points.

Underscoring these findings, the AAC&U board of directors’ statement “urges a far-reaching and unprecedented effort to ensure that all the nation’s college students—whatever their age and whatever their background—receive the finest possible preparation for the demands and challenges of this global century.” 

“For too long, we have been providing a horizon-expanding education to some students and only a narrow set of skills to other students,” said AAC&U Board Chair Eduardo J. Padrón, president of Miami Dade College.  “The world is too complex and the workplace too dynamic and challenging to continue this practice.  AAC&U’s board of directors is, therefore, calling for a far-reaching national commitment to provide the outcomes of an engaged liberal education to all students to prepare them for the challenges of the workplace and to ensure the vibrancy of America’s economy.”

“It is time to get rid of the outdated notion that liberal education is irrelevant to the needs of the twenty-first-century economy,” Schneider added. “As these survey findings show, employers want much more emphasis on the essential outcomes of a liberal education, whatever a student’s actual major.  These outcomes are key to the future of our economy and our democracy.”

AAC&U is the leading national association concerned with the quality, vitality, and public standing of undergraduate liberal education. Its members are committed to extending the advantages of a liberal education to all students, regardless of academic specialization or intended career. Founded in 1915, AAC&U now comprises 1,200 member institutions—including accredited public and private colleges and universities of every type and size.

AAC&U functions as a catalyst and facilitator, forging links among presidents, administrators, and faculty members who are engaged in institutional and curricular planning. Its mission is to reinforce the collective commitment to liberal education at both the national and local levels and to help individual institutions keep the quality of student learning at the core of their work as they evolve to meet new economic and social challenges.