It's Time for Colleges to Focus on Employability

By - July 20, 2020

In May, California State University Chancellor Timothy White announced that all 23 of its universities have suspended in-person classes for the fall semester. White said, "This virtual planning approach is necessary because a course that might begin in a face to face modality in the fall would likely have to be switched to a virtual format during the term if a serious second wave of the pandemic occurs as forecast for late fall." 

CSU is the largest public state university system in the country, historically setting precedents that other school systems end up following. Still, according to a running list kept by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 63% of postsecondary institutes are planning for traditional in-person learning, a far cry from predictions earlier this spring, yet no one really knows what's in store for this fall.

This uncertainty is causing many students to rethink their postsecondary plans. Results of a recent study indicate nearly half of seniors on track to graduate say their postsecondary plans have changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of those students surveyed, 32% say they expect to delay their start date, 16% say they’ve changed their path of study due to the pandemic, and 36% say they'll now work in lieu of schooling—EdSurge recently ran an article discussing how interest in taking a gap year is rising. 

Colleges are rightfully worried, but a pretty open secret is that many colleges have been worried for some time now, and much how the pandemic has been the tipping point for issues already afoot in the workplace, it's also bringing longstanding college and university foundational cracks to the forefront. College completion rates have been dropping for years: 58% of students who start college still won’t have a degree after 6 years, 1 in 5 college students will quit at some point, and many don’t make it past the first year; 30% of college freshmen end up dropping out (conversely, employment for community college graduates is on the rise, not necessarily surprising since a primary focus of these institutions is a career plan).  

Another little known, but sobering statistic for colleges is a phenomenon known as the “summer melt,” when the college-going plans of as high as 40% of incoming freshmen dissolve between the time they’re accepted into college and when they should be starting classes. Research on this year’s “melt” shows 87% of university admissions officials polled think this year’s percentage is going to be much higher than 40%. 

What's possibly the most troubling statistic for colleges and universities is an increasing number of current and former students questioning the usefulness of their college degrees—one of the main critiques is that these degrees aren't guaranteeing their holders jobs or getting them ready for the realities of the working world. In other words, a degree doesn’t necessarily make you employable, arguably the antithesis of its purpose.  

While newly scrutinized, college employability isn't a new issue. In a New York Times article from 2013 titled “What It Takes to Make New College Graduates Employable” Alec Levenson, a senior research scientist at the University of Southern California is quoted as saying, “A four-year liberal arts education doesn’t prepare kids for work and never has.” In the same article, Mara Swan, the executive vice president at global strategy Manpower Group, echoes that sentiment, “There’s always been a gap between what colleges produce and what employers want, but now it’s widening.”  A joint survey from this year by Gallup and Strada found that three quarters of hiring managers don’t see a connection between a degree and job performance, while 40% of recent graduates were underemployed pre-pandemic. There’s a major disconnect happening that must be reckoned with if colleges want to compete with workplaces that are increasingly saying they don’t need their degrees, compounded now with showing prospective students who were questioning colleges effectiveness pre-pandemic, that they can count on this experience to really give them an upper-hand in this job market the pandemic has thrust upon us, regardless of whether that experience is in-person, virtual, or a hybrid of the two.

A recent Inside Higher ED article titled “It’s Now or Never,” states, “The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unprecedented upheaval across all industries, with higher education especially impacted. For almost 20 years, online education was more the exception than the rule, yet it took just a few weeks for most colleges and universities to migrate fully to the internet. This rapid transition has laid bare long-standing shortcomings in both higher ed’s value proposition and the means to deliver it.” That’s good news for colleges and universities committed to bringing values to their students. It means course correcting might be easier than anticipated. There’s still incredible value in getting a college or university degree, but in order to keep that value, schools need to start focusing on employability just as much, if not more, than traditional academics in order to survive these unprecedented times.  

There are schools that have already started using a focus on employability to improve completion rates, and thus the value of their degrees. Georgia State University improved their graduation rates by 14% by focusing on measures geared towards employability rather than rankings. They took out barriers to reach the upper-level courses focused on specific career readiness skills (for example, the business school used to require a GPA of 2.8 to take these upper-level courses, which meant that to supplement their tough courses many students were padding their schedules with gen-eds that did nothing to prepare them for the world of business), invested in more professional career advisors, streamlined majors into career pathways, and got more career-specific vs. major-specific student-help centers (they replaced the math lab with an accounting center).  

A 14% increase is impressive, and that's because focusing on relevant areas of student interest works by keeping students engaged. Research shows that "greater exposure to career-relevant planning were more likely to be engaged in their education," and students engaged in their education are more likely to graduate. College students who have identified not just a major but a career path, feel twice as prepared for their futures. As a study published in the journal Phi Delta Kappan states, “schools need to be able to engage, inspire, and advance students with every kind of interest and ability…career exploration programs are one way to accomplish just that.” 

There’s a litany of other ways colleges can do this. They can focus more on soft skills. They can build relationships with companies to help shape and design majors. They can also focus less on the flashy success stories that gain publicity, and more on celebrating robust graduation rates—it doesn’t really matter if your valedictorian waltzed through a fortune-500 interview or your law school acceptance rate is 20% if your overall graduation rate is just 70. This can ensure students feel ready for the world of work, which in turn will eliminate those pesky studies where alumni say they aren’t.  

There’s no way around it. The college experience is going to look vastly different this upcoming year, but a hard pivot towards employability would be a welcome difference for students, and a smart difference for colleges and universities to embrace.


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