A recent survey by Northeastern University highlights disagreement about who is responsible for preparing graduates for the workforce
A public-opinion survey that Northeastern University released last week found that American adults and employers want colleges to produce graduates who can think creatively and communicate well. The study’s perhaps-banal findings notched a perhaps-banal headline from The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Employers and Public Favor Graduates Who Can Communicate, Survey Finds.”
What would the alternative be, a reader might wonder: “Employers and Public Favor Graduates Who Cannot Communicate”? The Chronicle’s headline would be impossible to understand if removed from contemporary debates about the purpose of higher education. Many such debates revolve around the question of what colleges should aim to impart to students. Should colleges work to give graduates a well-rounded liberal-arts education? Or should they seek to instill industry-specific skills? Advocates of vocational education find themselves, at times, in an awkward position. The terms of the debate frequently pit versatile skills such as clear communication and critical thinking (the latter is a notoriously loose term) against the rigid-but-marketable skills that vocational training will supposedly inculcate.
The value of Northeastern’s survey, however, does not come from its rehashing of the vocational education versus liberal arts debate — although its findings do draw a distinction between STEM and vocational education on the one hand and liberal-arts education on the other. The Northeastern report is interesting because it casts light on another point of contention altogether: the widespread disagreement about who should bear responsibility for transitioning college students into the workforce.
The study surveyed 1,000 American adults, selected at random, and 263 employers. Respondents were split on the question of which party should be responsible for training students for workplace success. Thirty-six percent of respondents said the greatest responsibility for preparing future workers lay with employers; 35 percent said the students themselves; 29 percent said colleges.
The question of who is responsible for workplace preparation — firms, schools or students — is important because the question of responsibility is, implicitly, a question of cost. It takes time and money to turn students into workers.
Colleges already do a lot to ease students’ transitions into self-sufficient adulthood. Every future worker has to have a baseline of “softer” skills: the kinds of skills the liberal arts purportedly instill. These include effective communication, creative problem-solving and the ability to write and read intelligently. But future workers also need to acquire knowledge related to their chosen industries.
Most take it as a given that colleges will work to cultivate “soft” skills in their students. Should schools redirect already-limited funds to applied-training programs — thus, in effect, allowing firms to cut training costs? Or should students — some of whom graduate tens of thousands of dollars in debt — dish out for vocational-training programs after graduation?
It is in the interest of firms to displace the time and money required for graduates to acquire job-specific skills onto either colleges or the students themselves. In a tough economy, raw promise doesn’t always cut it. If students graduate fully prepared for a specific sector, firms do not have to expend as many resources on training new workers.
So the survey’s findings point to a possible contradiction. Respondents favored broad skills above vocational training. But just over a third of respondents said firms should bear the bulk of the responsibility for job preparation. To whom, then, does the cost of gaining “hard” skills fall? The business leaders surveyed seem to want it both ways. They want the versatility of liberal-arts graduates coupled with industry-specific capabilities: a tall order for the recent graduate firing off job applications.
One way to resolve this contradiction is to establish robust internship programs at universities. Northeastern, for example, has a well-known internship-placement program, which allows students to alternate academic study with periods of employment related to their major. Encouraging students to gain internship positions splits search costs fairly evenly among students, colleges and firms when colleges and firms work together to recruit promising students.
Yet a comprehensive internship system is only a partial solution when it comes to boosting students’ job-preparation levels. It is already common for some students to seek summer internships that transition into full-time jobs after graduation. In general, this practice is a good one. But there is some risk involved in placing a lot of emphasis on the summer internship. If the internship search becomes too high-stakes — if landing an internship becomes a necessary condition for employment — an internship system will not solve the job-preparation problem. Instead, it shifts the panic of seeking employment into the student’s third year, which further distracts students from getting the most out of their classes and extracurriculars.
The matter of who is responsible for teaching students “hard” skills will likely continue to animate conversations about higher education in the U.S. Each group — students, schools and firms — would prefer that another party subsidize vocational training. Unfortunately, if current trends hold, the 36 percent who think firms should bear the cost of teaching employees industry-specific skills will likely dip further.