A College Degree Sorts Job Applicants, but Employers Wish It Meant More

A College Degree Sorts Job Applicants, but Employers Wish It Meant More

By Karin Fischer
Yet half of those surveyed recently by The Chronicle and American Public Media's Marketplace said they had trouble finding recent graduates qualified to fill positions at their company or organization. Nearly a third gave colleges just fair to poor marks for producing successful employees. And they dinged bachelor's-degree holders for lacking basic workplace proficiencies, like adaptability, communication skills, and the ability to solve complex problems.

"Woefully unprepared" is how David E. Boyes characterized the newly minted B.A.'s who apply to his Northern Virginia technology consulting company.

What gives? These days a bachelor's degree is practically a prerequisite for getting your résumé read—two-thirds of employers said they never waive degree requirements, or do so only for particularly outstanding candidates. But clearly the credential leaves employers wanting. While they use college as a sorting mechanism, to signal job candidates' discipline and drive, they think it is falling short in adequately preparing new hires.

The tension may lie partly in changes in the world of work: technological transformation and evolving expectations that employees be ready to handle everything straightaway. And perhaps managers are right to expect an easier time finding employees up to the task—after all, three times the proportion of Americans have bachelor's degrees now as did a generation or two ago.

Some economists, like Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania, argue that employers' gripes about unprepared job candidates are just the same old, same old: "I understand that those doing the hiring in ancient Greece complained about the same thing."

Sine Nomine Associates, Mr. Boyes's firm, works with high-tech companies like Cisco and IBM. However, it's fundamental abilities that he says recent graduates lack, like how to analyze large amounts of data or construct a cogent argument. "It's not a matter of technical skill," he says, "but of knowing how to think."

Mr. Boyes, who takes on one or two new employees a year, isn't alone in finding recent graduates weak in those areas. While fresh hires had the right technical know-how for the job, said most employers in the survey, they grumbled that colleges weren't adequately preparing students in written and oral communication, decision-making, and analytical and research skills.

That might come as a surprise to college leaders, who frequently cast the value of a degree in those very terms. But Julian L. Alssid, of the nonprofit Workforce Strategy Center, says that although business and higher education may use the same language, it doesn't always have the same meaning. Educators often think of such competencies "in a purely academic context," Mr. Alssid says, while employers want "book smarts to translate to the real world."

"It's a matter of how to apply that knowledge," he says.

Such a push, however, tends not to go over well with faculty members who look down on any instruction perceived as vocational.

The Boeing Company in 2008 began to rank colleges based on how well their graduates perform within the corporation; it plans to conduct the same evaluation again this year, says Richard D. Stephens, senior vice president for human resources and management.

While the results have not been made public, Boeing did share them with colleges. Some took the findings seriously, even working with the aerospace company to refine their curricula, while others dismissed them. Colleges' responses, Mr. Stephens says, have affected where Boeing focuses its internship programs and hiring.

"To expect business to bring graduates up to speed," he says, "that's too much to ask."

With many people now moving from job to job and employer to employer throughout their careers, on-the-job preparation no longer makes economic sense to a lot of companies. Mr. Boyes, the technology consultant, puts all new hires through a yearlong training program, but he's an outlier.

"Once upon a time, 'trainee' used to be a common job title," says Philip D. Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. "Now companies expect everyone, recent graduates included, to be ready to go on Day One.

"The mantle of preparing the work force," he says, "has been passed to higher ed."

Whether colleges want to accept that responsibility is another matter. While some institutions tout their career centers, internship offerings, and academic programs designed with industry input, others argue that workplace skills ought to be taught on the job. Higher education is meant to educate broadly, not train narrowly, they say: It's business that's asking too much.

And if college graduates aren't up to scratch, some campus leaders ask, why do employers keep hiring them? The unemployment rate for Americans with bachelor's degrees, after all, is less than 5 percent; for those with only high-school diplomas, it's nearly double.

Well, because even though employers may kvetch about college graduates, they generally make better employees than those who finished only high school, says Paul E. Harrington, who leads Drexel University's Center for Labor Markets and Policy. If nothing else, having gone through four—or five or six—years of schooling proves that they can stick with a task. "It's a relative bet," he says.

Survey respondents echoed that idea, calling a college degree "absolutely required," "a must," and "indication a candidate ... can work toward achieving a goal." A B.A. shows that somebody has "staying power," one employer said. "It helps distinguish between those that have put in effort," another noted, "versus those who have not."

But Mr. Harrington and others worry that bachelor's-degree holders may be squeezing those with less education out of the job market, particularly during this lingering downturn. A recent study by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a research-and-advocacy group, found that nearly half of all American college graduates in 2010 were underemployed, holding jobs that require less than a bachelor's degree.

Those findings are contested by some in higher education, such as the Lumina Foundation's Jamie P. Merisotis, who calls the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics' occupational definitions, on which the study is based, imprecise or out of date. A college degree may not be necessary to sell shoes, but it probably is to sell sophisticated medical devices, Mr. Merisotis says. Both occupations are classified as "sales" by the bureau.

In fact, in the Chronicle-Marketplace survey, some lines of work that traditionally haven't required a degree, including manufacturing and the service-and-retail sector, are where employers now place a higher value on a college education. Other fields, like nursing and respiratory therapy, have begun to require a bachelor's degree for even entry-level positions.

The trend may reflect the growing complexity of certain professions, but it worries Barbara R. Jones, president of South Arkansas Community College, a rural institution that enrolls large numbers of working adults and first-generation students.

Additional schooling isn't always feasible or affordable for them, she says, and all the focus on the bachelor's degree could make it more difficult for those students to climb toward a solid career.

"My concern," she says, "is that we don't eliminate rungs on the ladder."

Students go to college to get an education and a job. Yet the things they look for in colleges to help propel them forward don't always square with what employers value.

In a national survey, freshmen at four-year colleges most often cited the option "This college has a very good academic reputation" as very important in deciding where to enroll. After they spend years doing well in school to get into college, straight A's often remain an expectation. And in some circles, the name on the rear-window decal of the family car is all-important.

But students' grades and their colleges' reputations are hardly the most important factors for employers, according to a survey by The Chronicle and American Public Media's Marketplace. Employers want new graduates to have real-world experience. Internships and work during college matter most: Employers said that each of those was about four times as important as college reputation, which they rated least important. Relevance of coursework and grade-point average rounded out the bottom of the list.

Those results track with other research into what employers want, says Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "Students and families overestimate the importance of selectivity enormously," he says. "The economy is much more democratic than higher education is."

Yet there is less of a discrepancy between how families and employers look at college than there used to be, says David Strauss, a principal with the Art & Science Group, a higher-education consulting firm that studies enrollment decisions. Top students used to feel confident about life after graduation, he says. Not anymore.

Second to academic reputation among students' reasons for picking a college is that its "graduates get good jobs," according to the survey of freshmen. Some directors of campus internship programs report fielding questions from prospective families. And, responding to consumer demand in 2007, the Princeton Review scrapped its ranking of best academic colleges, replacing it with one for career services.

That recent interest aligns with employers' focus on practical experience. For Enterprise-Rent-A-Car, which hires some 8,500 recent college graduates in a typical year, such experience can come from an internship, a job, "anything that allows them to see what the real world is like—the more professional, the better," says Marie M. Artim, vice president for talent acquisition. The company's own internship program serves as a significant pipeline.

The same goes for General Electric. The company concentrates its recruitment on 45 American and 60 foreign campuses, from which it makes two-thirds of its hires, says Steve Canale, manager of global recruiting and staffing. So while there are good candidates elsewhere, he says, GE homes in on where it will get the greatest return. That means even a standout student at an unknown college is less likely to catch a recruiter's eye.

Beyond experience, the rest of what matters to employers can be murkier: It depends on the company and the job. Take grade-point average. Many employers are little concerned with grades, as the survey reflects. Others, like GE, use a cutoff to shrink the pool. As for graduates' majors, they matter a great deal in some fields, like engineering; you need a certain background to design a jet engine. But recent graduates angling to work, say, sales, don't need a particular major as long as they have other skills. Communication, integrity, and ambition are three qualities GE looks for in all its hires.

Between teenagers and careers stand colleges, and both sides expect them to be a bridge. "Universities across the U.S. are working to bring those two pieces together closer all the time," says Gene Wells, who directs the career center at the University of Evansville.

Evansville's president has made a big push on career development, says Mr. Wells. "We want to make sure our education is a value proposition for students, parents, and our other set of customers: employers and our community."

The campaign begins even before students enroll. Last summer Evansville began offering free career-assessment and -advising sessions during campus visits by prospective students. Career counselors also talk with them outside the visit program, sometimes via Skype. From last August to December, 160 prospective students took part in some kind of counseling, Mr. Wells says.

They may have an idea of what job they'd like to pursue—perhaps because they've seen it on TV, he says—but they haven't learned yet to think broadly about various ways their interests might line up with the world of work. That's where Evansville can help.

But while colleges are doing more to prepare students for the job search, employers aren't necessarily satisfied with the results. Nearly a third responded in the survey that recent graduates were unprepared for that search. Their interviewing skills, employers said, were particularly lacking.

Students start college with a limited understanding of the professional world, says Christopher E. Reeves, a counselor at Beechwood High School, in Fort Mitchell, Ky. Parents care a lot about their children's finding jobs after college, but at the admissions stage that mostly translates into a fixation on major, says Mr. Reeves. Parents feel better "if the major describes the job," he says. The liberal arts, he finds, can be a tough sell.

Perhaps that limited awareness shouldn't come as a surprise. Should high-school students know exactly where they want to go to college to plot a precise course to a career? Teenagers may be clueless about what they might do with their lives, but they're being pushed to start figuring it out.

The pressure is on. Already the admissions process is starting earlier, and the stakes are high. College prices are rising, family incomes are not, and more students are turning to loans to make up the difference. As greater shares of students graduate with debt, they must think fast about earning a living in a job market that remains weak.

Students have much to gain, then, in figuring out what employers want. Of course, they can always just go to graduate school.

That's where Rachel Vandernick, a senior at Messiah College, in Mechanicsburg, Pa., learned how to fail. It happened during one of her six internships, when she inadvertently sent the wrong press release to 40 news outlets.

Until then, says Ms. Vandernick, a public-relations major, failure meant getting a B-minus, showing up to class late, or not knowing the answer to a professor's question. Failure in her internship affected other people and the company's brand. She had to send out 40 new e-mails to make things right.

"I learned," she says, "how to clean up a mistake."

The lessons internships can teach, their growing prominence, and the enormous value they carry for college graduates are turning them into a key marketing asset for higher education in a tough economy—even as the experiences can prove difficult to weave into the traditional curriculum.

Students don't just want internships; they need them. When evaluating recent graduates, employers weigh internships most heavily—more so than applicants' college, their grades, or their major, according to a survey commissioned by The Chronicle and American Public Media's Marketplace.

"An internship is the single most important credential for recent college graduates to have on their résumé," wrote Maguire Associates, the higher-education consulting firm that conducted the survey.

Internships also present a paradox. While a college degree delivers higher earnings over a lifetime, it is often internships that start graduates on their way. And yet the experiences unfold almost entirely outside traditional academic bounds.

Internships take many forms. Professionally focused disciplines may require them, sometimes by other names: fieldwork, co-op, practicum. Some internships pay; some ask that interns receive academic credit; some do both or neither. Two students in the same major at the same college can intern for the same company, work for different supervisors, and emerge with two very different experiences.

Such variety can make it difficult to quantify internships' educational value. And yet colleges often must do just that. Federal guidelines, intended to protect interns from exploitation, consider academic credit a fair substitute for compensation. At least that's how companies see it—and they often require that interns get that credit.

To increase oversight of internships and bolster their educational validity, colleges have erected considerable institutional scaffolding around them. The most robust programs screen and counsel students, offer a concurrent internship course, craft learning contracts with employers, conduct site visits, assign students writing exercises, assess their portfolios, and ask students and employers to evaluate each other.

Although such efforts are helpful, they're not the only factors that lead to real learning, says Michael True, director of the Internship Center at Messiah and manager of a national e-mail list on the subject. In good internships, students are bound to learn, whether their college takes an active role or not. The hope, he says, is that institutions will push students to think more deeply than they otherwise would.

"The reflection is what brings the deep learning," says Mr. True. "We know that doesn't always happen," but "that's the ideal."

Educators certainly see the potential of internships. They are one of several "high-impact practices" identified by George D. Kuh, founder of the National Survey of Student Engagement, or Nessie. Like service learning, study abroad, and open-ended research projects, internships often place undergraduates in challenging situations with complex tasks and elusive answers.

"You can't easily simulate that kind of real-world experience," says Jillian Kinzie, associate director of Nessie. "When done well, they connect students to opportunities where they can apply what they're leaning to a different context."

Internships also come with real-life consequences, as Ms. Vandernick, of Messiah, discovered. Working with colleagues can carry lessons as well. Students will often find themselves alongside people of different ages, backgrounds, and views, which can also spur self-reflection and learning.

But colleges aren't always thorough in prompting that reflection. Less than half of students granted academic credit for an internship had to write a paper or deliver a presentation on what they learned during their experience, according to Intern Bridge, a recruiting-and-consulting firm, which analyzed survey responses in 2011 from nearly 9,000 students at 300 colleges.

Even in internship programs with apparently sound educational guidelines, lessons aren't guaranteed.

The University of Connecticut's internship program in writing is one that makes a deliberate effort to connect the classroom to the workplace. Students serving as interns take a course that assigns one to two pages of reflection following each day of work, says Ruth Fairbanks, the program's director.

Such exercises don't always ensure connections, at least at first. Jacquelyn M. Lomp, who graduated from UConn last May with a B.A. in English, initially wasn't sure how her internship, in which she wrote newsletters for the university's pharmacy department, related to her studies. "I'd go from dissecting different pharmaceutical research," she says, "to studying Norse mythology."

Only after college did she come to recognize that both her academic work and her internship required intense focus and the ability to analyze language for deeper meaning.

In some practically oriented fields, the classroom is direct preparation for the workplace. An internship can add a necessary dose of messiness.

Shannon Duffy, who graduated from Xavier University in Ohio with a degree in nursing, says internships helped her see obstacles that can arise in clinical practice. While her coursework taught her that a bacterial infection can be cured with antibiotics, her experience revealed that the patient may not understand the instructions, have enough money to fill the prescription, or finish the prescribed course.

"There was always a jolt to see or do something for the first time with a patient, compared to in classes," Ms. Duffy, who is now a pediatric nurse in an intensive-care unit, wrote in an e-mail.

Such stories suggest that internships will continue to bring educational value to students. Whether this value is the result of, or irrelevant to, a sometimes-disconnected academic enterprise is debatable. In a depressed labor market, in which an internship has become more or less a prerequisite for a job, those concerns may also be beside the point.

Survey Results and Methodology

The findings on these pages come from a survey developed, fielded, and analyzed by Maguire Associates Inc., a higher-education consulting firm, on behalf of The Chronicle and American Public Media's Marketplace. Maguire invited 50,000 employers to participate in the study., a career-services consultancy, helped develop the sample by providing a contact list of employers that recruit recent college graduates.

The survey was conducted in August and September 2012. There were 704 responses.

Results were organized by industry and hiring level. Hiring levels were divided into human resources, managers, and executives.

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