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Commentary & Opinion

Karen Hitchcock: Are Our College Graduates Overqualified, Underprepared... Or Both?

Around the country, thousands upon thousands of young people are graduating from colleges and universities, eager to enter the next phase of their lives – the world of work.  They are looking forward to obtaining employment which will make good use of their particular areas of study; and, in many cases, allow them to begin to pay off the often staggering amounts of debt they have accrued.

Unfortunately, these two goals often go unmet. There appears to be an ongoing mismatch between what employers need and the educational preparation students receive. This so-called “skills gap” has been described and studied extensively, with business leaders stating that they currently must fill some 50% of their high tech jobs with workers hired from abroad….. a very disheartening statistic. Interestingly, while some 40% of our nation’s employers share this feeling (NGA Center for Best Practices, March, 2011), over 80% of our nation’s college and university leaders believe that, on the contrary, their graduates are prepared for entry to the workforce – clearly a “perception gap regarding work readiness” (McKinsey & Company Education-to-Employment Survey) which needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

A recent study of such education- to- employment issues was carried out by the consulting group, McKinsey & Company, in partnership with Chegg, Inc. This study, entitled “The Voice of the Graduate”, focused on the till now rarely heard voice of the graduates themselves. In the study, some 4,900 two-year and four-year college graduates were surveyed to assess their attitudes and concerns regarding education-to-employment issues.

A key finding of the study was that almost half of the graduates felt overqualified for the jobs they were able to find. Jobs in their particular fields of study in college were not available in sufficient numbers, and they often found themselves in jobs which they felt did not actually require a degree. In fact, Catherine Rampell, a writer for the New York Times, recently stated that “… employers are hiring college-educated workers for jobs that do not actually require college-level skills … positions like receptionists, file clerks, waitresses …”. Indeed, the McKinsey Study found that fully…” half the nation’s graduates could not find work in the field they had hoped to enter.”

Even as many graduates felt overqualified for the kinds of jobs they were able to find, over 30% felt unprepared for the world of work. They reported that their experiences at college did not prepare them to function well in a work environment, feelings we have seen echoed by many employers. This was especially true for students with majors in the liberal arts, though students in the sciences, business and economics also felt unprepared in such areas as technical skills and quantitative reasoning. Importantly, such perceptions of unpreparedness were greatly decreased when work experiences such as internships were integrated into the students’ curricula. To quote the McKinsey Report: “ In a sense, the ‘voice of the graduate’ revealed in this survey amounts to a cry for help – an urgent call to deepen the relevance of higher education to employment and entrepreneurship so that the promise of higher education is fulfilled.”

I am convinced that our nation’s institutions of higher education can address this need for a better alignment of academic programs with workforce needs in ways which do not dilute the quality or goals of the various degrees. However, to do this, university leaders and business leaders need to come together in ways which result in new approaches and concepts – not just more of the same. Even in our new world of MOOCs – or, massive, open, online courses – where thousands of students are simultaneously taking the same course, we must strive for a more individualized and experiential approach to education for our students. We need to provide future graduates of our nation’s colleges and universities the assurance that their education will have value;  that it will prepare them for productive careers which will evolve as the workforce needs of our nation evolve. If we can do that, education will continue to be at the heart of our nation’s  growth and competitiveness.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.


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