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How College Contributes to Workforce Success

Most employers view liberal education as essential for workforce preparation

April 1, 2021

The economic benefits of a college degree are clear: no matter their major, people with a college degree are more likely to be employed and earn higher salaries over the course of their careers than people without a degree. But how do colleges and universities prepare students for workforce success? And what skills and experiences do employers think matter the most?

Since 2007, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has published a series of employer surveys on higher education. The new report released this month, How College Contributes to Workforce Success: Employer Views on What Matters Most, presents findings from a wide-ranging survey of 496 executives and hiring managers. The survey was conducted in partnership with Hanover Research.

Authored by AAC&U Vice President Ashley Finley, the report explores employer views of what constitutes workforce preparedness, the educational outcomes and experiences employers value most when making hiring decisions, and employers’ perceptions of recent graduates’ ability to succeed in entry-level positions and in later promotion and career advancement. Overall, most employers view liberal education as essential to workforce success, but fewer believe that graduates are prepared with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed.

Employers Are Confident about Higher Education and the Value of a College Degree

  • Two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, and almost nine in ten (87 percent) believe that getting a college degree or credential is “definitely” or “probably” worth the investment of time and money (see figure 1).
  • Responses show that employers think a college education should provide both breadth and depth of learning and prepare future employees to think for themselves, adapt to problems, and have the technical knowledge necessary for their new roles.

Figure 1. Employer Confidence in Higher Education


Employers View Several Skills, Mindsets, and Attitudes as Important for Success

  • At least nine in ten employers viewed fourteen skills as “very important” or “somewhat important,” especially teamwork, critical thinking, data analysis and interpretation, applying learning in real-world settings, and digital literacy (see figure 2).
  • More than half of employers saw a variety of mindsets and attitudes as “very important,” including drive/work ethic (65 percent), the ability to take initiative, self-confidence (63 percent), persistence (62 percent), and self-awareness (55 percent).

Figure 2. Employer Views on the Skills Most Important to Workplace Success


Employers Appreciate Applied Learning Experiences Like Internships or Community Engagement

  • Nearly half (49 percent) of employers say they are “much more likely” to consider hiring candidates who have had an internship or apprenticeship, with another 41 percent saying they are “somewhat” more likely to consider hiring such candidates.
  • Employers are also somewhat or much more likely to consider hiring candidates who had experiences in community settings with people from diverse backgrounds or cultures (47 and 41 percent, respectively), participated in a work-study program or other form of employment during college (46 and 44 percent), or had a portfolio of work showcasing skills and integrating college experiences (44 and 45 percent).

ePortfolios Can Help Graduates Explain the Value of their College Learning

  • Nearly nine in ten employers find college graduates to be at least “somewhat effective” (47 percent) or “very effective” (40 percent) in communicating the skills and knowledge they gained in college.
  • ePortfolios can help college students communicate the skills they developed and the experiences they had during their time in college. More employers find ePortfolios “very helpful” in evaluating a candidate compared to those who find transcripts helpful (48 percent compared to 38 percent).

Less than Half of Employers Are ‘Very Satisfied’ with Graduates’ Preparation for the Workplace

  • While nearly nine in ten employers (87 percent) report that they are at least “somewhat satisfied” with the ability of recent college graduates to apply the skills and knowledge learned in college to complex problems in the workplace, just under half (49 percent) are “very satisfied.”
  • Just 62 percent of employers believe that most or all college graduates possess the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in entry-level positions, and fewer (55 percent) believe they possess the knowledge and skills required for advancement and promotion.
  • Less than half of employers think college graduates are “very well prepared” in the same skills they view as the most important for success, including the ability to work effectively in teams (48 percent), critical thinking skills (39 percent), the ability to analyze and interpret data (41 percent), and the application of knowledge and skills in real-world settings (39 percent).

Younger and Highly Educated Employers See More Value in Liberal Education

  • Younger employers and employers with higher levels of educational attainment have more favorable perceptions of both the value of the college degree and graduates’ preparedness for workforce success (see figure 2).
  • However, employers under forty and those with postgraduate education were also the most likely groups to have “very little” confidence in higher education.
  • “One possible explanation may be that employers under the age of forty are the oldest millennials,” Finley writes. “Members of this generation, the most highly educated in US history, may be expected to value the college degree, but they also came of age during a financial crisis that produced widespread skepticism in public institutions.”

Figure 2. Differences in Views by Age and Educational Attainment