Liberal Education

What Really Matters for Employment?

As chronicled elsewhere in this issue of Liberal Education, higher education broadly and liberal arts institutions specifically are experiencing a range of critical challenges, not the least of which are shifts in what today’s undergraduates choose for their major. For instance, data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) reveal that, since 2008, there has been a precipitous decline in the number of students choosing the humanities as their major (see the graph below).1 It has been theorized that “students fled the humanities after the financial crisis because they became more fearful of the job market,”2 but that ultimately raises questions regarding what really matters to employers, what curricular choices faculty and administrators should make on their campuses, and how students should position themselves to be best educated in light of employment trends and employer expectations. In the summer of 2018, two key reports regarding employer expectations were released by (1) the Strada Institute for the Future of Work and Burning Glass Technologies and (2) Handshake.3 Among the conclusions from these reports were that “the skill sets of graduates—rather than their major—might matter most in hiring.”4 As 2018 concluded, the Strada Institute for the Future of Work surmised that “most of the current literature on the future of work underscores this growing need for human skills such as flexibility, mental agility, ethics, resilience, systems thinking, communication, and critical thinking.”5

With the economic downturn in 2008, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) began commissioning national surveys and focus groups to examine trends related to college graduates and the most important learning experiences and outcomes they need to successfully navigate the global economy.6 Employer surveys have consistently been at the heart of this work. Jeffrey J. Selingo has posited that the Great Recession forever changed the job market for new graduates, and indeed, AAC&U’s research echoes many of those perceptions.7 For instance, in 2013, 91 percent of employers said that the challenges their employees face are more complex than they were in the past, and 93 percent reported that they were asking employees to “take on more responsibilities and to use a broader set of skills than in the past.”8 That same year, 93 percent of employers also agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems [was] more important than their undergraduate major.”9 That perception continues to be the case in more recent employment reports.

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Ten years after the Great Recession, AAC&U’s latest round of employer surveys sought to better understand the specifics and nuances of what really matters for employment for new college graduates. Conducted from May 17 to June 1, 2018, this round of employer research not only surveyed chief executive officers, presidents, and/or other “C-suite” executives (e.g., chief operating officers) but also included a parallel survey of nonexecutive hiring managers, in part to determine if there is a significant disconnect between the perceptions and expectations of C-suite executives and those who are actually charged with evaluating candidates for positions. The findings match well with data emerging from other reports and are consistent with trends observed in AAC&U’s 2013 report.

Specifically, the 2018 survey found that “when hiring recent graduates, business executives and hiring managers place a high priority on demonstrated proficiency in a variety of skill and knowledge areas that cut across majors.”11 For example, the ability to effectively communicate orally was rated as the most desired skill by both groups. Hiring managers also reported that ethical judgment and decision-making, the ability to work in teams, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings were very important skills they were seeking in recent college graduates. This is similar to the top-rated skills by business executives, who included critical thinking and analytical reasoning, as well as the ability to work independently, among their most highly sought attributes. (The top graph below summarizes the skills valued most highly by both groups of respondents.) It is important to note that those who actually perform the task of hiring graduates from our institutions value these skills even more than executives.

Employers are also in search of job candidates who have had specific educational experiences that serve to develop desirable skills and prepare new hires for success in their positions (see the bottom graph below). At the top of the list, both hiring managers and business executives reported that they would be much more likely to hire candidates who had experience through an internship or apprenticeship with a company or organization. Hiring managers also value a range of experiential learning opportunities, such as service learning, undergraduate research, and community engagement projects with diverse populations. In addition to community engagement and undergraduate research, business executives would be much more likely to hire candidates who participated in writing-intensive courses or completed advanced senior projects such as a thesis. Many of the common attributes of these experiences are that they provide graduates with learning opportunities that either closely mirror real-world experiences or indeed actually occur within real-world settings.

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Unpublished qualitative responses from AAC&U’s 2018 employer survey provide a richer picture regarding what employers seek in recent college graduates. All survey respondents were provided the opportunity to state, in their own words, what they see as the overall value of a college degree. A large number of responses validated previously stated desires for hiring recent graduates that possess crosscutting, higher-order skills. Many responses echoed the sentiments expressed by one C-suite executive who shared that a college degree “is extremely important irregardless [sic] of the job [students] seek. A college education benefits graduates in the workplace by teaching them critical-thinking skills, teamwork, and collaboration, all of which are imperative to success in the workplace.”

Interestingly, both hiring managers and C-suite executives also indicated that beyond these skills, the completion of a college degree served as evidence of a job candidate’s work ethic, sense of purpose, and self-efficacy. For example, one hiring manager shared that attaining a college degree “shows that you have the drive to start and finish something and that you have the knowledge required to advance in the workplace.” Another stated that not only does a college education help provide a student with “advanced knowledge,” the degree also represents “the beginning of business discipline. It structures an individual to perform at their best. It sets goals that are very needed. It sets a platform of knowledge and understanding.” Another hiring manager expressed that “having a college degree or credential means, at the minimum, that the person was able to represent him/herself in an application, could understand the rules and expectations of enrolling/completing coursework, had the tenacity to overcome challenges, and had the persistence to see the experience through to completion.” Offering a cautionary note to higher education, one hiring manager argued that skill development in higher education “is not the issue; colleges and universities do well” in this arena. Instead, this hiring manager asserted that “it’s career and professional expectations that are the issue” for today’s graduates, and that helping students understand and live up to these expectations is where colleges and universities are falling short.

The range of responses from C-suite executives and hiring managers demonstrated that they see “employability” as a nuanced concept, one that transcends any single major or discipline. A response from a C-suite executive aptly illustrates this point:

I think earning a college degree means that an individual has made a commitment to learn how to analyze problems and think at a higher level than those with just a high school diploma. It means they have learned how to set goals, manage their time, and work in a group to achieve a common goal. It also means they have honed their skills in presenting their ideas orally and in writing. All of these skills make them valuable as a team member in accomplishing the goals of the company they work for. These skills are extremely valuable in their work life as well as their personal life.

Key opportunities

Benjamin Schmidt suggests that “students aren’t fleeing degrees with poor job prospects. They’re fleeing humanities and related fields specifically because they think they have poor job prospects.”12 However, data from multiple sources regarding employer expectations suggest that the knowledge, skills, and abilities developed by a college education in general, and study in those fields specifically, are ideally suited for the needs and expectations of employers today and into the foreseeable future. Key opportunities emerge as a result of these findings:

  1. In addition to content knowledge and the general value of a college degree, when communicating with prospective students, colleges and disciplines should highlight the specific skills engendered by study at their institution or in their field and how those skills map to current employer expectations.
  2. Recognizing the outcomes and experiences sought by employers, these findings provide direction for curricular reform efforts, including work within the major as well as general education.
  3. As students approach graduation and prepare for the job market, advisors, career services professionals, and mentors should help students articulate the skills they possess that are most sought by employers as well as highlight the educational experiences that would increase a candidate’s probability of being hired. Guidance regarding how to best leverage career search tools, including the appropriate and meaningful application of ePortfolios, should be part of this career preparation.
  4. There are significant opportunities for colleges and universities to make it clearer to employers, using the language of employers, what skills their graduates possess upon graduation.13 This “translation chasm” is so significant that several new companies have emerged to facilitate these processes.14

Although launched in 2005, AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative is more relevant today than ever, as the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes (and the high-impact educational practices that help students achieve these outcomes) closely align with the findings of these multiple employer research studies.


1. Benjamin Schmidt, “The Humanities Are in Crisis,” Atlantic, August 23, 2018,

2. Schmidt, “The Humanities Are in Crisis.”

3. Burning Glass Technologies and Strada Institute for the Future of Work, The Permanent Detour: Underemployment’s Long-Term Effects on the Careers of College Grads (Indianapolis, IN: Burning Glass Technologies, 2018), , Handshake, Campus to Career: What Today’s College Students Want Next (San Francisco, California: Handshake, 2018), /Handshake Annual Campus to Career Report Web.pdf

4. Jeffrey J. Selingo, “How the Great Recession Changed the Job Market Forever for College Grads,” Washington Post, June 2, 2018,

5. Michelle R. Weise, Andrew R. Hanson, Rob Sentz, and Yustina Saleh, Robot-Ready: Human+ Skills for the Future of Work (Indianapolis: Strada Institute for the Future of Work, 2018), 3,

6. Association of American Colleges and Universities, Employer Survey and Economic Trend Research,

7. Selingo, “How the Great Recession Changed the Job Market Forever for College Grads.”

8. Hart Research Associates, It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2013), 4,

9. Hart Research Associates, It Takes More Than a Major, 4.

10. Schmidt, “The Humanities Are in Crisis.”

11. Hart Research Associates, Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2018),

12. Schmidt, “The Humanities Are in Crisis.”

13. Daniel J. McInerney, “Becoming a ‘Bilingual’ Advocate for Your Discipline and Your Graduates,” Liberal Education 104, no. 3 (Summer 2018),

14. Weise et al., Robot-Ready.

To respond to this article, email with the authors’ names on the subject line.

C. EDWARD WATSON is chief information officer and associate vice president for quality, pedagogy, and States Initiatives at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. KATHRYNE DREZEK MCCONNELL is assistant vice president for research and assessment at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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