Liberal Education

Preparing Students for an Unscripted Future

As students were headed back to campus this fall, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) released the findings from its latest round of employer surveys, Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work.1 The survey, conducted on behalf of AAC&U by Hart Research Associates, included the perspectives of both business executives and hiring managers, with the goal of assessing the extent to which each group believes that a college education is important and worthwhile, identifying the learning outcomes they believe are most important for success in today’s economy, and discerning how prepared these different audiences perceive recent college graduates to be in these outcomes.

Just prior to the release of AAC&U’s report, the Pew Research Center revealed the results of its own survey of Americans’ attitudes toward higher education.2 At a time of increasing partisanship and polarization in the United States, both Democrats and Republicans agree on one thing—that higher education is headed in the wrong direction. Of the 4,587 respondents, 61 percent raise concerns about the current state of the academy. However, the nature of these concerns continues to fall along party lines. While burgeoning tuition is a shared source of skepticism among Democrats and Republicans, Democrats emphasize worry over college costs more than their Republican counterparts. Republicans, on the other hand, are focused on the belief that colleges and universities not only fail to provide students with the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace but they do so in an environment that chills the free exchange of ideas by pushing a narrow, progressive political agenda.

In AAC&U’s survey, 501 business executives and 500 hiring managers at private sector and nonprofit organizations, whose current job responsibilities include recruiting, interviewing, and hiring new employees, express higher satisfaction with colleges and universities than does the American public, as reflected in the Pew results.3 Sixty-three percent note having either “a lot of confidence” or “a great deal of confidence” in American higher education. Business executives and hiring managers also agree upon the value of college, maintaining it is an essential and worthwhile investment of time and money. In addition to the potential for increased earnings, both executives and hiring managers cite the benefits of the accumulation of knowledge, the development of critical and analytical skills, and the pursuit of goals as especially meaningful.

Moreover, consistent with findings from six earlier surveys commissioned by AAC&U as part of its ongoing Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, employers overwhelmingly endorse broad learning and cross-cutting skills as the best preparation for long-term career success. The college learning outcomes that executives and managers rate as most important are oral communication, critical thinking, ethical judgment, working effectively in teams, written communication, and the real-world application of skills and knowledge.4 They give high ratings to the skills of locating, organizing, and evaluating information from multiple sources; analyzing complex problems; working with people from different backgrounds; being innovative and creative; and staying current on technologies.5

Internships and apprenticeships are deemed particularly valuable, with 93 percent of executives and 94 percent of hiring managers indicating that they would be more likely to hire a recent graduate who has held an internship or apprenticeship with a company or organization. Further, employers at nonprofits say they are much more likely to hire recent graduates who have community-based or service-learning experience. This is not surprising given that only 33 percent of executives and 39 percent of hiring managers believe that recent graduates are “very well prepared” to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.6 When it comes to evaluating job candidates, only 51 percent of executives and 48 percent of hiring managers find transcripts useful. Instead, they call for ePortfolios of recent graduates’ college work as a more reliable tool for vetting candidates.7

The articles in this volume offer a response to AAC&U’s employer surveys, pointing the way forward with respect to preparing students for success in work, citizenship, and life. Despite the fact that liberal education is a distinctly American tradition, its popularity is growing around the world, even as its relevance is under attack in the United States.

Understanding the foundations of this global trend, using data to tell the story of the enduring value of a pragmatic liberal education to those inside and outside of the academy, leveraging technology, and enhancing rubrics and meaningful assessment to prepare students for the future are more critical than ever. Emphasizing the importance of high-impact practices, learning by doing, and fostering creativity, innovation, and moral imagination, the authors offer insights into how institutions of all types around the world can promote student success and restore public trust in higher education. To do so requires demonstrating in a more compelling way to those outside of the academy, Democrats and Republicans alike, the extent to which we in fact are teaching students twenty-first-century skills and preparing students to solve our most pressing global, national, and local problems within the context of the workforce, not apart from it.


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

2. Josh Moody, “Survey: Republican and Democrats Agree Higher Ed Is on the Wrong Path,” Forbes, August 5, 2018,

3. Hart Research Associates, 5.

4. Hart Research Associates, 11.

5. Hart Research Associates, 12.

6. Hart Research Associates, 4.

7. Hart Research Associates, 17.

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