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From College to Career Success

How educators and employers talk about skills

By Terri L. Flateby and Tara A. Rose

July 16, 2021

Since 2007, AAC&U has surveyed employers across the country to ensure that recent college graduates are entering the workforce with the experiences, skills, and disciplinary learning necessary to succeed in their careers. The results have been quite consistent for more than a decade: employers believe graduates are essentially ready for employment, though there is room for improvement. And employers continually view skills such as critical thinking, teamwork, and oral and written communication as the most important for career success.

Participate in the College to Career Success Project

Are you a manager currently supervising a recent or seasoned college graduate? Are you a college educator, assessment practitioner, or career center staff member who has built relationships with employers? Participate in our College to Career Success research project by indicating your interest on the C2C Project Interest Form.

At the same time, thousands of colleges and universities have been assessing students’ achievement of these skills using AAC&U’s VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics, which correspond to essential learning outcomes (ELOs) such as critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, and teamwork. Since 2014, over 615,000 individual VALUE rubrics have been downloaded by users from more than 2,744 colleges and universities in over 141 countries.

Though employers and educators might use similar terms, their interpretations and descriptions of these skills can vary significantly across different academic and workplace communities. There can even be different interpretations within a single workplace or among various disciplines at the same institution. If thousands of colleges, universities, and companies (and even more faculty and employers) are using these skills to evaluate the achievements of students, new employees, and employees poised for advancement, having a common understanding of the skills is essential.

The College to Career Success Project

We designed the five-phase College to Career (C2C) success project to build connections, establish effective communication, and cultivate partnerships between faculty members and employers. These partnerships will culminate in the development of instructional tools such as authentic career-related assignments and experiences that integrate important ELOs with disciplinary skills. These assignments will help students to transfer ELOs and disciplinary skills into their diverse career environments.

We are also conducting focus groups with “line managers,” the employers who work directly with college graduates (both new and seasoned), rather than the CEOs and hiring managers typically surveyed by AAC&U and other researchers. These focus groups are intended to (1) determine consistencies and differences between employers’ and educators’ definitions of the thirteen ELOs and associated VALUE rubrics, (2) identify the most valued and weakest learning outcomes in the workplace, and (3) determine if differences exist among various disciplines and fields.

Before the focus groups, we provided the names of thirteen ELOs and asked line managers to rank them from most to least important. We then provided AAC&U’s published definitions of each outcome for line managers to review prior to meeting with their focus group. During the focus group, participants discussed the results of the initial ranking, reranked the ELOs based on the published definitions, discussed the differences and similarities between the two rankings, and explored how their own understanding of the ELOs compared with the published definitions.

Managers Rank the Top Five Skills for Recent Graduates

Table 1 shows line managers’ ranking of the ELOs after they read the definitions. This ranking is compared with AAC&U’s latest employer survey results, which include the percentages of CEOs and hiring managers who believed each skill was “very important” for college graduates entering the workforce.

The line managers’ ranking of the top five ELOs (problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork, oral communication, and written communication) were mostly consistent with the top five skills identified in the AAC&U employer survey. The exceptions were oral communication, which was more important for the line managers, and inquiry and analysis, which was ranked higher by the CEOs and hiring managers.

Table 1. How the Line Managers’ Ranking Compares with the AAC&U Employer Survey

Essential Learning Outcomes Ranked by Line Managers in the College to Career Success Project

Skills Included in AAC&U’s 2021 Employer Survey of Hiring Managers and CEOs

Employers Indicating Skills Are “Very Important” for Graduates in the AAC&U Survey

1. Problem solving

Ability to demonstrate complex problem-solving skills


Ability to locate, evaluate, and use information in decision making*


2. Critical thinking

Critical thinking skills


Ability to locate, evaluate, and use information in decision making*


3. Teamwork

Ability to work effectively in teams


4. Oral communication

Ability to communicate through speaking and presentation skills


5. Written communication

Ability to communicate through writing


6. Creative thinking

Creative thinking


7. Inquiry and analysis

Ability to analyze and interpret data


Ability to locate, evaluate, and use information in decision making*


8. Quantitative literacy

Ability to work with numbers and statistics


9. Ethical reasoning

Ethical judgment and reasoning


10. Foundations and skills for lifelong learning

Ability to integrate ideas/information across settings and contexts*


11. Global learning

Ability to communicate/work with people from different cultural backgrounds*


12. Intercultural knowledge and competence

Ability to communicate/work with people from different cultural backgrounds*


13. Integrative learning

Application of knowledge/skills in real-world settings


Ability to integrate ideas/information across settings and contexts*


*Skills associated with multiple essential learning outcomes.

Line managers also questioned why so many separate ELOs were necessary when many are interrelated. They suggested that some outcomes could be subsumed into wider overarching outcomes. For example, line managers thought that the inquiry and analysis outcome should be subsumed as a dimension of critical thinking; intercultural knowledge and competence could be considered part of diversity, equity, and inclusion; and oral communication should include other types of communication beyond students’ delivery of a “prepared purposeful presentation.” Consistent with AAC&U’s employer survey, the line managers emphasized the importance of mindsets and aptitudes—such as being a self-starter, taking initiative, having humility, and listening—that they felt were missing from the thirteen ELOs.

Managers Identify Weaknesses in Graduates’ Critical Thinking and Written Communication

Line managers were also asked to identify weaknesses in college graduates’ mastery of their five highest-ranked outcomes. Of the top five outcomes, critical thinking and written communication had the most observed weaknesses. Several managers observed that graduates need more experience exercising critical thinking skills throughout the curriculum and in more complex situations. Newer graduates often look for the “right” answer, the managers said, and provide employers with what they think they want to hear. Often, new graduates do not know how to proceed without direction.

For written communication, the line managers reported that newer graduates typically communicate in writing as though they are texting. Most of the written communication issues they identified pertained to a lack of audience awareness.

Immediate Actions to Improve Critical Thinking and Written Communication

From our preliminary findings, our analysis suggests immediate actions that faculty can take to improve students’ critical thinking, such as introducing critical thinking assignments early in a course or program, continuing to foster these skills throughout the curriculum, and building contextual complexity into assignments. Providing students with authentic tasks and projects that they may encounter in their careers is especially important. Simple suggestions such as varying audiences for writing assignments and considering multiple audiences in discussions will help students to improve their audience awareness.

Our research has demonstrated that employers, faculty members, and others working in higher education are dedicated to ensuring graduates are skilled in the essential learning outcomes needed to successfully transition from college to careers. We invite you to share our work with faculty, career center directors, and line managers who may be interested in participating in future stages of the research, including additional focus groups.

If interested in learning more about our ongoing research please complete the C2C Project Interest Form.


  • Terri L. Flateby

    Terri L. Flateby is a higher education and assessment consultant, formerly serving as associate vice president of Georgia Southern University.

  • Tara Rose

    Tara A. Rose

    Tara A. Rose is the Director of Assessment, Office of Institutional Effectiveness, at Louisiana State University