Do We Need More College Grads, or Better Ones?

Like it or not, young Americans mainly go to college because they think that’s the way to land a job. Therefore, it’s reasonable to ask how good a job the colleges are doing of helping young people toward that goal. A recent study done for the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) sheds some light on that question.

The study, “Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn,” was conducted in the fall of 2009. It consisted of interviews with 302 employers  (the division between for-profit and non-profit wasn’t mentioned) that have at least 25 employees and who hire a significant percentage of their new workers from people with college degrees.

If surveys like this ask good questions, they can provide insight, but there’s a trade-off. The simpler and easier the questions, the more likelihood that busy people will bother to respond, but the less we’re apt to learn.

I’m going to examine several of the questions and discuss the findings. The survey is pertinent to one of today’s major higher education policy questions: Does American economic strength dependson increasing the percentage of people who have college degrees? Or should our focus  be on raising the level of instruction and achievement for those who show an interest in advanced academic studies?

Hiring People with Different levels of Education

The question was asked: Do you expect your organization to put more, less, or about the same emphasis on hiring people who have a) only a high school education, b) have a 2-year college degree, or c) have a bachelor’s degree.

The results show that the trend is toward more hiring of people who have a bachelor’s degree and less hiring of those who have a high school education, with 28 percent of the respondents saying that they expect to put more emphasis on hiring four-year college graduates and 25 percent saying that they expect to put less emphasis on hiring high school graduates. Larger organizations (500 or more employees) were quite a bit more inclined toward 4-year graduates than were smaller ones.

Why this preference? The survey provides no clues.  How strong is it? No clues.

One conclusion that would certainly be unwarranted is that job opportunities for people who don’t have post-secondary education are disappearing. After all, employers who hire mostly non-college workers were not included in the survey. People who are always pushing for more governmental support for higher education on the grounds that employers supposedly need workers with “more education” should not cite this study for that proposition (but they might anyway).

Expectations for Workers

The survey asked respondents if they are asking employees to take on more responsibilities and use a broader set of skills than in the past; 91% said yes.

The survey asked if the challenges faced by employees are more complex than in the past and 88 percent said yes.

The survey asked if employees need higher levels of learning and knowledge than in the past and 88 percent agreed.

That set of questions is particularly unsatisfactory. They’re “leading questions,” as lawyers would say, and they’re terribly vague. You would expect positive answers from anyone whose business or organization isn’t stagnant. I suspect that the higher education promoters will gleefully say that these answers demonstrate the need for policies to increase college graduation rates, but again that’s unwarranted.

What you’d like to know is what positions these decision-makers expect to hire workers to fill and exactly what those “higher levels of learning and knowledge” are. The question I’d like to have followed up with would be, “For what positions do you anticipate hiring workers where the level of knowledge and skill required is such that it could only be learned by someone who had earned a college degree?”

If, for example, a pharmaceutical company only hires new research people who have studied chemistry and biology, that makes perfect sense. Lack of such knowledge would be a hard constraint on the ability of a high school graduate. On the other hand, if a car rental company said it was only considering college graduates for “associate” positions, we’d see that the degree was just a screening device since no specific college coursework is essential to learning how to process the forms, check the cars, and hand over the keys.

When people read this part of the study, they’re apt to think that “higher levels of learning” necessarily implies college work, but they shouldn’t. People often acquire new, presumably “higher” skills without formal education.

That is a point stressed by Northeastern University sociology professor Michael Handel in his 2003 paper “Skills Mismatch in the Labor Market.” (The paper isn’t available online, but the citation is Annual Review of Sociology 2003, Vol. 29:135-65.) In real-life situations, he writes, “tasks are performed in context and people have greater internally generated motivation to develop proficiency…. The knowledge and techniques are gained through daily experience, learning from others, and participation in a community of practice….”

Let’s state the point this way: When people have a strong reason to learn something, they usually can.

Handel refers to another paper where the researcher studied a factory in which the workers (high school education and below) had to adjust from an antiquated facility to a new, state-of-the-art one. The knowledge and skill demands in the new plant were higher than before. How much of a problem was this for the relatively uneducated employees? Not much at all, the researcher concluded. The workers absorbed the skill upgrading easily.

So the “higher levels of learning and knowledge” doesn’t imply the need for a college degree, although I suspect that’s how this study will be pitched.

Are Colleges Emphasizing the Skills and Knowledge that Employers Want?

The survey asked another, more useful set of questions. Employers were asked if they felt that colleges should place more emphasis than they currently do on certain learning outcomes.

The top response, with 89-percent agreement, was the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing. That is, overwhelmingly the employers think that college graduates are weaker than they should be in the most basic of skills—using the language. Studies such as the National Assessment of Adult Literacy have found that most Americans, even college graduates, are not very proficient in reading and writing. This survey backs that finding up.

Most professors don’t push students very hard in ways that would improve their reading comprehension and ability to write clearly. Evidently, schools ought to start demanding more such work.

The next most endorsed statement was that students need better analytical reasoning skills (81 percent). For all that colleges say they emphasize “critical thinking,” employers don’t believe that students are very good at it. Hardly any schools require a course in logic, but apparently that would be a good idea.

Summing up, this report doesn’t show a need for more college graduates, but makes the case that schools should focus more on the basics for the students they have.

Editor’s note: George Leef will be debating the question of whether the U.S. needs more college graduates February 26 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Other participants are Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund; Margaret Spellings, former education secretary; and Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. The debate will be broadcast on PBS stations around the country over the next few weeks.