The Skills College Graduates Need

One of the phrases we hear over and over again from the American higher education establishment is that it’s “the envy of the world.” I have never actually seen evidence to back that contention up, like a statement from the German Prime Minister saying, “We Germans are so envious of your fantastic higher education system in America!” I have, however, seen quite a lot of evidence that Americans aren’t terribly impressed with the results of our colleges and universities.

On October 2, The Conference Board, an organization of American businesses, released a survey entitled “Are They Really Ready for Work?” The report, which was based on responses from 431 employers, hardly gives a ringing endorsement of our education system. Only 10 percent of the employers said that they find graduates of 2-year colleges “excellent” in terms of their overall preparation for work and only 24 percent rated graduates of 4-year colleges as “excellent.”

The greatest area of deficiency identified by the business respondents was in communications. Roughly half of new workforce entrants with 2-year degrees and more than a quarter with 4-year degrees were rated as “deficient” with regard to their ability to write and understand written material. That finding is not surprising, given the results of last year’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which concluded that literacy among college graduates was shockingly low – and falling.

What makes this so disturbing is that when asked to name the most important skills for new workers to have, business leaders said that those same communication skills were by far the most important. Nearly 90 percent of the respondents said that those skills were “very important.” Understanding math was said to be “very important” by 64 percent, science was “very important” to 33 percent, and smaller percentages listing foreign languages, government/economics, history/geography, and humanities/arts.

Those results underscore an important point. Most jobs don’t call for any deep academic background. Employers, for the most part, are looking for people who are readily trainable and can work with others. Good language skills are of the greatest importance in that respect, but many graduates entering the workforce are weak there.

The Conference Board study isn’t the first one to find that recent graduates are poor when it comes to writing. In 2004, the National Commission on Writing also reported that America’s business sector is dissatisfied with the skills of young people they’re hiring. One comment was particularly striking: “I can’t believe people come out of college now not knowing what a sentence is.”

But how is it possible for people who have gone through their K-12 years and at least two years of college to be “deficient” in the use of English? A few are children who grew up in households where English wasn’t the main language, but even then you’d expect that they would be at least reasonably proficient in English if they’ve graduated from college. The language skills problem starts early in our educational system.

Reading and writing have been degraded in many of our schools. Try asking a teacher how much time is spent on diagramming sentences and you’re apt to get a blank stare. Tests don’t often include essays because grading them takes much more time than running a True-False test through a scanner. Careful reading of books has been replaced to a great extent by videos; papers have been replaced with artsy projects. It’s little wonder that many incoming college students have an aversion to the sort of work that builds reading and writing skills.

Quite a few students do improve their communication skills somewhat in college, but many others coast through on pretty much the same weak foundation they had as freshmen. Professors frequently complain that getting their students to read assignments is like pulling teeth. Many have thrown in the towel and have adjusted their reading and writing demands downward to keep students happy. A perfect example of that is found in the book Generation X Goes to College by Peter Sacks, who writes about his “sandbox experiment” to lower academic standards and increase the “fun” quotient in his courses in order to keep his job.

For Americans of the Baby Boom generation or older, it may be surprising that students these days are so weak in their language skills. They remember writing lots of book reports in grade school, which usually came back with plenty of red ink showing where they had made mistakes in spelling, grammar, and construction. They remember teachers who insisted that students learn and follow the rules of proper English. What has changed?

Most teachers these days are taught in their education courses that such “old-fashioned” ideas are wrong and harmful. According to the dominant “progressive” educational theories, teachers should follow “student-centered” approaches where they act as a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on a stage.” Language conventions are regarded as “hegemonic.” It’s far better to allow students to express themselves in their “authentic voice.” To criticize a student’s writing is to risk lowering his self-esteem, so the right thing to do is to put on a smiley face and give it a good grade.

When college professors see bad writing from their students, often full of errors that you wouldn’t have expected of 5th graders in bygone eras, they might take out the red pen try to set them straight. Doing that, however, is fraught with danger since students often react to such criticism with indignation. “Well, I think I am a good writer and your opinion is no better than mine!” Many professors don’t want to fight the battle against bad writing. If teachers haven’t been paying attention to a student’s writing for twelve years, why start now?

If we want to improve the usefulness of college, the place to start is with English skills. That’s not going to do much good, however, unless we first uproot the ideas that have so undermined the teaching of language skills in the K-12 years.