Survey Says: UNC System Only Needs Band-Aids, Not Real Reform

Results from an employer survey recently released by the University of North Carolina system suggest that graduates of the state’s 16 public universities—especially those from less selective schools—are deficient in terms of their written and oral communication, work ethic, and workplace etiquette. These results match those of national employer surveys. 

Such problems are serious matters, and they must be addressed in ways that reflect that seriousness. Unfortunately, at last week’s Board of Governors (BOG) meeting, some board members and system officials—echoing recommendations made by the surveyed employers—proposed surface solutions, such as expanding career counseling and internship opportunities. 

No amount of career counseling will help a college graduate write a grammatically correct office memo, let alone develop creative solutions to complex business or social problems. That’s why emphasis should instead be placed on improving general education curricula. Such foundational coursework, when designed rigorously, develops students’ communication abilities, logic and reasoning, and political and historical understanding. That kind of liberal education imparts the “soft skills” that employers seek and that graduates are lacking. It also produces well-rounded individuals who are able to contribute broadly to civil society. 

Of course, many students attend college mainly because they want well-paying jobs. And of course schools can assist them by streamlining job searches, conducting mock interviews, etc. Those are useful services that can produce good results in the short-term. But they are the sizzle, not the steak. In the long run, universities help students most by providing a first-rate education, not by deferring to the sometimes narrow goals of hiring managers or hosting more career fairs. 

A similar point was made last week by first-term BOG member Joe Knott, a Raleigh attorney. “Does [expanding career services] take resources and funds away from the primary goal of the university, which is to educate?” he asked. “Rather than us placing [students] out, let’s place more into the student.” 

Knott is right. The system’s primary mission is to educate, not to be a workforce development cooperative. 

But education and workforce development are not a zero-sum game in which officials must choose one or the other. Strengthening general education requirements—roughly one-third of a student’s coursework—will also strengthen the workforce. A 2013 study conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and Hart Research Associates revealed that 93 percent of employers believe that “a [job] candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.”

Although the UNC system, too, has recognized the importance of such general skills, it has dragged its feet on a reform plan that was introduced two years ago. In 2013, system leaders developed a five-year “strategic directions” initiative that, among other things, called for bolstering general education across the system and enhancing students’ “core competencies” in areas such as critical thinking, quantitative analysis, scientific inquiry, knowledge of history, etc. That plan resulted in the formation of the General Education Council (GEC), which was supposed to identify key educational objectives and then “explore methodologies appropriate to assessing [learning] outcomes.” So far, the plan has been watered down and delayed

The GEC decided instead to focus on just two competencies—critical thinking and written communication. And rather than adopt proven student evaluations such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) that are currently used by a few UNC schools, the council opted to create its own assessment, which has not yet been fully developed. Ultimately, even if the GEC creates a good student assessment and is able to identify areas for course improvement, decisions regarding curriculum reform will be left to departments and faculty members. 

Since current UNC system general education programs were crafted largely by faculty, it is unlikely that another round of self-regulation will effect meaningful change. With few exceptions, general education programs in the system consist of an incoherent jumble of courses that allows students to avoid the sort of rigorous training that will enhance the very skills employers seek. And many do. 

The need to create a new test of students’ thinking and writing skills specifically for the UNC system is puzzling. There is already a variety of tests in use throughout the country and at some UNC schools, including the CLA, Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency, and ETS Proficiency Profile. One would think that using a national test for comparison with other states’ universities would offer the most insight. 

But those tests may be telling a story that some university officials don’t want to hear.

Regarding the CLA, test results tend to be bad and often reflect poorly on universities’ educational quality. In January, for instance, results of a nationwide test of 32,000 individuals from 169 colleges and universities showed that 40 percent of college graduates were ill-prepared for the white collar workforce because they lacked the skills honed by a quality general education. 

The tests already administered by some UNC system schools are certainly more objective than the employer survey discussed at last week’s BOG meeting. The survey is limited in scope: its results are based more on focus groups and open-ended questions, and a system official even said that there may have been “selection bias” (out of the several hundred small and large business in the state that were recruited to take part in the survey, only 18 percent responded). 

Given what we know at the national level about disengaged and underperforming college students and the discrepancy between employers’ views on graduates’ workforce preparation and those graduates’ inflated perceptions of their own abilities, the following conclusions from the UNC system’s survey seem more like public relations rhetoric than a serious review of graduates’ abilities: 

  • “Not a single employer thinks that the skills students are learning in their classes are substandard.” 
  • “[The] university system as a whole is found to be highly effective in training students for jobs in the global economy.” 
  • “Students are viewed as collaborative and team-oriented, as well as good problem solvers and critical thinkers.” 

More believable are the report’s rare criticisms, which relate to students’ lack of communication skills and the “concern that student expectations relating to compensation, advancement and work ethic are somewhat inflated and naive.” Especially since such criticisms are corroborated by more in-depth national surveys. 

Enhancing career services may very well fix the problem of students’ unrealistic expectations. Other issues revealed in the survey, however, such as poor work ethic, seem to be of a personal and moral nature, and will not be solved by career counseling alone. 

One potential way to attack such personal and moral issues is by developing an individual’s ability to reason. And that can be developed in the same way that students’ weak written and oral communication skills can be addressed: by a well-structured general education program. 

The UNC system should not put much faith in band-aid approaches that hide the serious problems underneath its surface. Better to keep focus on the system’s real shortcomings—general education programs—even if feathers get ruffled.