“Alignment” as the Next Higher Education Frontier

Access. Affordability. Completion rates. Successful outcomes. Each of these has been a standard in measuring how well a college is fulfilling its mission and providing a worthwhile return on investment. And according to two higher education researchers who spoke at our “Lunch with Lawlor” event (#lwlchicago) last weekend in Chicago prior to the College Board’s Midwest Regional Forum, another goal should and perhaps will take hold in the near future: alignment between student learning and job-relevant competencies.

John Pryor is former director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) and now the newly appointed senior research scientist for Gallup Education charged with implementing the Gallup-Purdue Index, which seeks to measure how college graduates perceive the effects of their education on their careers and their quality of life. Pryor reviewed CIRP findings that indicate even though 88 percent of first-year students said a very important reason they decided to attend college was “to be able to get a better job,” only 34 percent of college seniors reported being very satisfied with the relevance of their coursework to their future career plans. He also compared results from CIRP’s faculty survey with a survey of hiring executives sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. They indicate college professors do indeed prioritize, as learning goals for their students, the same skills and abilities that employers wish they would emphasize. Yet still, only 56 percent of employers are satisfied with how well colleges and universities are preparing their graduates for the workplace.

These findings led Pryor to posit that perhaps there’s a mismatch between what faculty mean by these learning goals and what employers mean. He argued that getting faculty and industry to partner on such issues is key to improving students’ preparedness for their careers and lives ahead—and at the same time, a way for colleges and universities to solve the problem of how best to demonstrate their value.

Phil Gardner, director of the College Employment Research Institute (CERI) at Michigan State University, presented employment data to reinforce why college graduates need a competitive advantage in a post-recession marketplace that is taking much longer to recover jobs than after previous recessions. He also showed that while the nature of today’s work has changed, job-recruiting practices are still stuck in the past. Gardner argued that what’s required is a new model for professional expertise—one centered on technical competence, taking initiative, and cognitive abilities. And while a “liberal arts” education (Gardner noted that the term “arts and sciences” actually goes over better with employers) can certainly develop these boundary-crossing competencies, liberal arts graduates often have trouble crafting, and therefore translating, their individual stories for a non-academic audience.

Gardner argued that because the only college experiences that really count to employers are those that are almost precisely relevant to what the employers do, graduates must unpack their academic experiences and learn to convey them in terms that matter to the employers in order to show what they’ll bring to the table. So what really needs to happen, said Gardner, is for faculty to teach students to talk about what they’ve done in ways that help employers understand the relevance. At the very least, that language is what must be in alignment.

Lawlor Recommends

As colleges and universities enter into the yield phase of this student recruitment cycle, one of the most important value proposition variables they must communicate to students and families is how the educational experience at each of their institutions enhances the student’s preparation for life after college.

In many cases, this means simply doing a better job of translating and communicating the message of the experience in easy-to-understand and relevant terms, while also providing compelling evidence and examples of graduate success.

For others though, this is a high-alert wake-up call. The higher education marketplace is on a quest for the best investment value. The message and the experience must be in alignment with the expectations of the marketplace to provide a compelling value proposition. If colleges and universities are not addressing one of the heavily weighted variables in the value proposition equation—post-graduate success—then student-recruitment yield will likely be soft. And the outcome of that is not positive.


In the News

National Public Radio and many other mainstream media outlets reported the findings of a Pew Research Center study that indicates, “On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment—from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time—young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education.” Full-time employed adults ages 25 to 32 holding only a high school diploma earn only 62% of what their college graduate peers do.


Did You Know?

95.9% of social networkers ages 12 to 17 used Facebook in 2013.

Source: eMarketer