Liberal Education

Success after College: What Students, Parents, and Educators Need to Know and Do

In the most recent American Freshman survey conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California–Los Angeles, 85.9 percent of entering students said that “to be able to get a better job” was the number one reason they were pursuing college degrees (Pryor et al. 2011, 9; emphasis mine). Nothing surprising there. Nearly 83 percent in this same survey reported, however, that they also went to college “to learn more about things that interest me,” and 72.4 percent said they pursued a college degree “to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas” (10). While the lingering effects of the recession have spurred many policy leaders, reporters, and commentators to focus narrowly on the “job training” outcomes of college and to question whether one really needs a college degree at all, students seem to understand three important things: a college education has multiple positive outcomes for those who pursue the degree with purpose, good guidance, and hard work; a college degree is essential for success in today’s competitive global economy; and a college education is an investment in future success.

Nonetheless, students—and their parents—are justifiably concerned about how to ensure that their investment in postsecondary credentials, their investment of time and money, really does result in positive outcomes in both the short and long terms. A college education is expensive. While it is clearly worth the investment—and even worth going into at least some debt to achieve—students need to know that not all college degree programs are equal; not all are designed to prepare them for long-term success. For this reason, students need to know more about what it actually takes to “make the most” of their investment. For their part, college educators need to know which educational practices and curricular pathways are most effective in preparing students for success over the long term, and those pathways must be made much clearer to students and prospective students.

The good news is that the learning outcomes that best prepare students for success in the workplace are those that also help students become responsible citizens and help them navigate their way through a challenging world. The bad news is that while some students achieve these outcomes at very high levels, others do not—and yet still obtain degrees or certificates. Moreover, many graduates have what it takes to succeed, but stumble in how they conduct their job searches or are inadequately skilled in presenting what they know and can do as a result of their college experience. This is one of the reasons why, even in a period of relatively high unemployment, over half of employers report having difficulty finding qualified candidates for job openings, and one-third say that recent graduates are very unprepared for their job searches (Marketplace and Chronicle of Higher Education 2013, 10–11).

Bridging the awareness and communications gaps

Through its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has since 2005 been working to expand understanding of what postcollege success requires and to build a coherent body of knowledge about what really works to prepare students with the knowledge, skills, and responsibilities they need to achieve that success.

Much work still needs to be done, however, to help students and parents understand what a high-quality undergraduate education consists of in twenty-first century contexts and to ensure that every student actually receives such an education. A recent survey commissioned by Inside Higher Ed found, for example, that while 40 percent of parents of high school students strongly agreed that “a vocational, professional, or technical certificate or degree program could lead my child to a good job,” only 26 percent strongly agreed that “a liberal arts education could lead my child to a good job” (Inside Higher Ed and Gallup 2013, 19–20). It is, of course, the case that some, but not all, technical or professional degrees or certificates lead to good jobs and that some, but not all, liberal arts degrees lead to good jobs. Some degrees also are likely to prepare graduates for success in the short term, but not in the long term, while other degrees position graduates for long-term success—but only if the degree holder goes on to pursue further study. As with most complex issues with multiple dimensions—like the many ingredients that go into success in life and work—the devil is in the details.

One explanation for the divergence in parents’ responses to the Inside Higher Ed survey cited above may be that they do not fully understand the differences among the kinds of degree programs on whose relative value they were asked to comment. By and large, the general public does not understand what a liberal education is or that it is possible to become a “liberally educated professional” in some, but not all, professional or technical programs. Many leading institutions are working to ensure that a commitment to both broad liberal education outcomes and field-specific job skills is embedded in all their degree programs, even in professional fields. In a recent interview, the editors of the new book Shaping the Future of Business Education argue, for instance, that “business education, alone and by itself, is not enough. . . . In fact, without the arts and sciences, modern business education is stunted and incomplete” (Jaschik 2013). Unfortunately, too many policy makers fail to recognize the importance of this “both-and” approach and, as a result, are making short-sighted proposals to scale back liberal arts programs in favor of a more or less exclusive focus on the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) or on narrowly focused professional training programs. Obviously, liberal arts and sciences fields are still valuable in and of themselves; but they are also urgently needed to help prepare liberally educated graduates in a wide array of other fields. Clearly, higher education must become better at communicating more widely about these issues.

To assist in that effort, AAC&U has prepared a brief guide for use by campus leaders and practitioners who seek to educate students, parents, and colleagues about the meaning of various terms related to liberal education (see sidebar). In addition, AAC&U has commissioned a series of national surveys of business and nonprofit leaders at companies and organizations that hire college graduates in order to paint a more nuanced picture of what success in the workplace really requires. These employer surveys reveal a need for companies and colleges alike to communicate these requirements more effectively and accurately, and the findings have clear implications for
students and parents, for college educators, and for employers themselves.1

Implications for students and parents

The findings from the AAC&U employer surveys suggest that the most important thing students and parents need to know is that the undergraduate major isn’t all that matters in determining long-term career success. What employers clearly want and need are liberally educated professionals. They seek to hire graduates with either field-specific training gained through college study or concrete experience gained through work or internship experiences, but they also seek graduates with high levels of skill and knowledge—that is, graduates who possess the cross-cutting capacities that a good liberal education provides, no matter what major field of study a student chooses. As the report on the most recent survey notes, nearly all the employers agreed that “a job candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major” (Hart Research Associates 2013, 1). When evaluating colleges, prospective students and their parents should spend at least as much time investigating whether every student at a particular college has access to educational experiences that build these cross-cutting capacities as they spend researching the fields of study in which students can major. A majority of employers believe that “having both field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of skills and knowledge” is most important for graduates who “want to pursue advancement and long-term career success” (5).

Reading carefully the answers to several questions posed in the survey, it is also clear that employers seek graduates with ethical integrity and with practice in thinking through the ethical dimensions of problems, including problems that originate in their fields of study as well as those that originate in the broader society. Nearly 90 percent of employers agreed, for example, that “all students should learn about ethical issues and public debates important in their field” (9).

Students and parents can help ensure that the college experience actually contributes to the development of these kinds of learning outcomes by asking hard questions of educators. They should ask about the requirements of a major before choosing it, for example. How much writing, research, and project-based learning activities are built into the program? For professional fields, in particular, is there a required course in ethics? Beyond any individual field of study, are the general education requirements designed to develop cross-cutting capacities and breadth of knowledge? Once students learn a body of knowledge or hone a particular skill, what opportunities exist for them to apply their learning in hands-on settings, on or off campus? These are important questions, but it can be difficult to get answers to them during a typical college visit or by searching college websites. Therefore, the burden must surely be shared by educators. The answers to these and similar questions about the quality of the undergraduate experience should be readily available from college catalogs, websites, and admissions materials.

Implications for college educators

The new employer survey provides important information that students and parents need to know in order to ensure that their investment in college education will have real value over the course of a lifetime. However, it also provides educators with valuable insights into educational and advising practices that can help ensure that every college student is well prepared for future success.

Survey participants were asked about ten existing or emerging educational practices. Several of these practices are clearly seen by employers as having potential for improving the quality of college learning. Several, in particular, emerge as “winners” in the eyes of employers. The top practice they endorse is research. Employers believe that students who are challenged to “develop research questions in their field” and who can conduct “evidence-based analysis” will be well positioned to succeed in the workplace. Employers also believe that students’ courses should help them “develop the skills to conduct research collaboratively,” and they endorse the requirement that students “complete a project prior to graduation that demonstrates their acquired knowledge and skills” (Hart Research Associates 2013, 10). Moreover, employers have for years urged students to complete internships while they are in college, and the 2013 survey indicates that many business and nonprofit leaders continue to endorse that practice. Yet, unfortunately, only about half of all college students currently do internships (Kuh, O’Donnell, and Reed 2013, 5). Again, these findings are not particularly surprising, nor do they indicate a need for radical changes. Nonetheless, the survey findings do strongly suggest that students’ curricular pathways should be more intentionally designed to ensure that no student can avoid doing collaborative research, learning how to conduct evidence-based analysis, and experiencing either a well-planned and supervised internship or some other hands-on learning experience.

It won’t be enough, however, to revisit curricular maps or to continue to expand faculty development efforts in order to incorporate more active learning experiences. Educators have to take two additional steps. First, these experiences need to be integrated into a coherent whole for each and every student. And this integration needs to occur as a result of enhanced collaboration among faculty across departments as well as closer collaboration between faculty and student affairs professionals—including academic advisors, career counselors, and other campus educators who work every day to help students make sense of their educational experiences. Second, opportunities for students to demonstrate what they are learning must be embedded within the educational program, along with opportunities for students to present themselves as well-educated people with a wide array of skills and with practice in putting those skills to practical use. This cannot be the sole responsibility of career counselors, and it cannot be left until the student’s last semester.

One especially promising vehicle for accomplishing these two steps is the electronic portfolio, or “e-portfolio,” which allows the individual student to present his or her work and to reflect over time on his or her educational accomplishments. Here, too, integration across departments is essential. Moreover, many career offices now work with students early in their college years to set up LinkedIn pages where they can post their resumes. Linking students’ e-portfolios to those pages would allow prospective employers to see more than just a resume. Indeed, in the new employer survey, four of every five employers said that an electronic portfolio of a student’s accomplishments would be either very or fairly useful to them as they assess a job applicant’s abilities (Hart Research Associates 2013, 3).

Employers and educators in partnership

Clearly, educators can do more to ensure that the college experience positions every student for long-term success, regardless of chosen field of study. But change isn’t only needed within colleges. Employers may need to alter their recruiting and hiring practices in order to discover talent wherever it can be found in colleges and universities. While AAC&U respects the opinions of the business and nonprofit leaders who have participated in our surveys, we do not presume that their recruiting and hiring practices are fully aligned with what is needed for the long-term success of either their employees or their businesses or organizations. We also know that by making common cause, employers and educators can more effectively communicate their shared understanding of what makes for a high-quality college experience. Additionally, by working with their boards of trustees and their business partners, individual college leaders can more effectively push back against potentially destructive policy proposals and emerging practices—such as the use of simplistic computer software to screen job applicants, which works against the effort to find the best educated and most talented graduates.

To help facilitate this promising partnership between employers and educators, AAC&U has launched the LEAP Employer-Educator Compact.2 Beginning with more than one hundred college, community college, and university presidents and more than one hundred fifty business and nonprofit leaders, AAC&U is bringing together a cadre of leaders committed to building our nation’s educational capital. Over the course of the coming year, AAC&U will continue to seek and welcome supporters across many sectors in order to strengthen this new advocacy and action effort. Forward-thinking business and nonprofit leaders know that their future success—and the future success of our nation—depends on whether our colleges and universities graduate liberally educated professionals who are prepared to fuel innovation and effective problem solving in fast-paced global environments. These leaders are committed to working together in order to provide more opportunities for internships and experiential learning. They are also working internally to ensure that frontline recruiters understand the broad knowledge and job-specific skills that are needed in new hires. In the coming year, AAC&U will work with this cadre of leaders to sponsor regional forums and to develop tools educators and hiring managers can use to convey to students and the general public what it really takes to succeed in today’s workplace.

As regular readers of Liberal Education know, AAC&U has a capacious vision of liberal education, and its membership remains steadfast in its commitment to providing an education that prepares students not only for success in the workplace, but also for responsible citizenship and a life well lived. We can—and must—meet this challenge not only for the most privileged students, but for all students who understand that a college education is, as noted in the LEAP report, “a route, perhaps the only possible route, to a better future” for individual students and for our nation (AAC&U 2007, 1).

Liberal and Liberal Arts Education:
A Guide to Frequently Confused Terms*

Liberal Education: An approach to college learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. This approach emphasizes broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth achievement in a specific field of interest. It helps students develop a sense of social responsibility; strong intellectual and practical skills that span all major fields of study, such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills; and the demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

Liberal Arts: Specific disciplines (i.e., the humanities, sciences, and social sciences).

Liberal Arts College: A particular type of institution—often small, often residential—that facilitates close interaction between faculty and students, and whose curriculum is grounded in the liberal arts disciplines.

Artes Liberales: The historical basis for the modern liberal arts, consisting of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music).

General Education: That part of a liberal education curriculum that is shared by all students. It provides broad exposure to multiple disciplines and forms the basis for developing essential intellectual, civic, and practical capacities. General education can take many forms, and increasingly includes introductory, advanced, and integrative forms of learning.

*Adapted from Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College (Washington, DC: AAC&U, 2002), 25; see also AAC&U, “What Is a 21st-Century Liberal Education?,” www.aacu.org/leap/What_is_liberal_education.cfm.

References

AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities). 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

Hart Research Associates. 2013. It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

Inside Higher Ed and Gallup. 2013. The College Decision-Making Process: A Survey of Parents of 5th- through 12th-Grade Students. Washington, DC: Inside Higher Ed.

Jaschik, S. 2013. “New Model for Business Education.” Inside Higher Ed, April 19, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/04/19/interview-co-editors-new-book-future-business-education#ixzz2ROxyikA9.

Kuh, G. D., K. O’Donnell, and S. Reed. 2013. Ensuring Quality and Taking High-Impact Practices to Scale. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

Marketplace and Chronicle of Higher Education. 2013. The Role of Higher Education in Career Development: Employer Perceptions. Washington, DC: Chronicle of Higher Education, http://www.chronicle.com/items/biz/pdf/Employers%20Survey.pdf.

Pryor, J. H., L. DeAngelo, L. P. Blake, S. Hurtado, and S. Tran. 2011. The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2011. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

Notes

1. It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning, the full report of the latest employer survey conducted for AAC&U by Hart Research Associates, is published in this issue of Liberal Education (see p. 22). The full report, along with PowerPoint slides summarizing the latest findings, is also available online at www.aacu.org/leap/public_opinion_research.cfm. Reports on previous surveys are also available there.

2. The full text of the LEAP Employer-Educator Compact is published in this issue of Liberal Education (see p. 30). Additional information about the compact, including an up-to-date listing of signatories, is available online at www.aacu.org/leap/presidentstrust/compact/index.cfm.


Debra Humphreys is vice president for policy and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.


To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the author’s name on the subject line.

Previous Issues