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Trustees Think Graduates Aren't Prepared for Work. They Should Talk to Their Provosts.

Trustees are more worried than provosts or even employers that college graduates lack the skills to compete in the global workforce

March 1, 2020

Trustees are more and more concerned that college graduates lack the skills to compete in the global workforce—more worried than provosts or even employers.

“Of all the groups ever surveyed about the work readiness of college graduates, university trustees are the MOST skeptical,” Brandon Busteed, president of Kaplan University Partners and a director on AAC&U’s board, wrote on LinkedIn.1

A recent survey from the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) found that just 4 percent of trustees strongly agree that graduates have the skills needed to compete in their careers,2 while Inside Higher Ed found that 41 percent of provosts or chief academic officers think that their institutions are “very effective” at preparing students for work (see figure 1).3 And according to employer research from AAC&U, hiring managers and executives say they are satisfied with recent graduates’ ability to apply the skills and knowledge they learned in college in the workplace, but they think that recent graduates are better prepared to succeed in entry-level positions than to advance or be promoted.4

To help trustees and provosts better understand what colleges and universities are doing to prepare graduates for the workforce and how they could do more, they should start conversations with each other and with employers.

Busteed called for a series of dialogues between trustees and provosts. These dialogues are already taking shape; Busteed and AAC&U President Lynn Pasquerella will participate in a “fireside chat” with Henry Stoever, president of AGB, to discuss workforce preparation and perception gaps at the AGB Institute for Board Chairs and Presidents of Independent Colleges and Universities, June 22–24 in Aspen, Colorado.

Figure 1.

March AACU News infographic_1320x400-01_0.png

Few Trustees Think US College Graduates Have the Skills to Compete in the Global Workforce

  • In AGB’s survey, trustees reported they are concerned about the future of higher education and its ability to prepare students for the workforce.2
  • Most (85 percent) said they are worried about the future of higher education in the next decade, and just a third agree (31 percent) or strongly agree (4 percent) that US college graduates have the skills to be competitive in the global economy (see figure 1).
  • To many trustees, colleges and universities don’t even know what employers want. Just 4 percent of trustees strongly agree (and another 22 percent agree) and that US colleges and universities “have a strong understanding of what employers look for in job candidates,” the report said.
  • In each of these questions, trustees were more pessimistic than they were in 2017, when 73 percent were worried about the future of higher education, 45 percent agreed or strongly agreed that graduates had the skills needed in the workforce, and 36 percent agreed or strongly agreed that institutions knew what employers were looking for.

Chief Academic Officers Have a Much Sunnier Outlook on Students’ Career Readiness

  • In stark contrast to the trustees, almost all chief academic officers think their institution prepares students well for work, with 41 percent saying it is “very effective” and 55 percent saying it is “somewhat effective” (see figure 1).3
  • According to the Inside Higher Ed survey, most chief academic officers (87 percent) think their institution is in excellent or good academic health, and almost all (99 percent) think it is somewhat effective (42 percent) or very effective (57 percent) at providing a quality undergraduate education.
  • Though most CAOs (87 percent) think that the liberal arts are central to an undergraduate education, nearly as many (84 percent) think it is “not well understood” in the United States. And more than half (60 percent) agree or strongly agree “that politicians, presidents, and boards are increasingly unsympathetic to liberal arts education,” the report said.
  • The perceptions of these stakeholders may be leading colleges to change their curriculum. Sixty percent of CAOs agree or strongly agree they “feel pressure from presidents, boards, or donors to focus on academic programs that have a clear career orientation,” and 89 percent agree or strongly agree their college or university is paying more attention to “the ability of degree programs to help students get a good job.”

Employers Say Graduates Have Skills for Entry-Level Jobs, but Maybe Not to Advance

  • In a 2018 survey conducted by Hart Research Associates for AAC&U, 57 percent of business executives and 60 percent of hiring managers said all or most of their “recent hires out of college” have the “full set of skills/knowledge” to succeed in an entry-level position.4
  • However, just 34 percent of business executives and a quarter of hiring managers believe their recent hires have the skills needed to advance or be promoted (see figure 2).
  • Employers are also more confident in higher education than trustees, with 63 percent expressing quite a lot or a great deal of confidence in colleges and universities.
  • Strong majorities of executives (82 percent) and hiring managers (75 percent) also believe that it is very important or absolutely essential for individuals today to complete a college education.
  • However, more than half of executives (56 percent) and hiring managers (53 percent) think colleges and universities should make improvements to ensure graduates are prepared for entry-level positions. And nearly two-thirds of executives and hiring managers (both 65 percent) think colleges and universities should make improvements to prepare students for advancement within companies.

Figure 2



1. Brandon Busteed, “Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges just released their annual 2020 Trustee Index,” LinkedIn, January 2020, https://www.linkedin.com/posts/busteed_highered-highereducation-highereducationleadership-activity-6628240769721397248-llmK/.

2. The AGB 2020 Trustee Index: Concern Deepens for the Future of Higher Education (Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards and Gallup, 2020), https://agb.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/AGB_2020_Trustee_Index.pdf.

3. Scott and Jaschik and Doug Lederman, 2020 Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers: A Study by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup (Washington, DC: Gallup and Inside Higher Ed, 2020), https://www.insidehighered.com/system/files/media/IHE_2020_Provost_Survey_20200121_0.pdf.

4. Hart Research Associates, Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2018), https://www.aacu.org/research/2018-future-of-work.