Career Success Depends on Liberal Arts, Part 2

One of the disturbing outcomes of the surveys I posted about recently on college learning and career success is the disparity between what employers and college students think about how prepared the students really are for the workplace. In fact, the survey report is titled: Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success.

One of the major finding was that employers “overwhelmingly” endorse what they call “broad learning” and cross-cutting skills as key to career success. And in that category, they include all of those skills we associate with the liberal arts: critical thinking, oral and written communication, analytic reasoning, to name a few. But the report summarizes two separate national surveys conducted at the same time: one of business and non-profit leaders and the other of current college students. Both groups were asked some of the same questions, and yet they arrive at some startlingly different conclusions—some of which may be detrimental to students as they start to seek jobs.

In fact, the students seem to fully agree with employers on the career value of broad learning and cross-cutting skills such as critical thinking…oral and written communication…analytic reasoning…and so on. The problem is that students by a large majority think they have developed those skills—whereas employers disagree. Only about 25 percent of employers say that recent college graduates are well prepared in these areas. And more than two-thirds say that “improvements are needed” if recent college graduates expect to advance and get promotions in the workplace.

Why the discrepancy between the students’ and employers’ assessments? Unfortunately, the report is silent on that. It simply states the outcomes.

What are we, at FIT, to make of this? We believe we prepare our students well in the areas in which employers say students—and colleges—are “falling short.” Over the last decade as we implemented our strategic plan, we raised the profile on liberal arts learning and emphasized the acquisition of critical thinking skills.

In recent years, our students have demonstrated considerable improvement in tests on critical thinking; indeed, our Middle States evaluators noted in 2012 that students report they are challenged to think critically in completing their assignments. Of course, that could speak to the same misleading confidence that the students in this survey expressed. The millennial generation is nothing if not self-confident.

On the other hand, I think of other metrics that one might use to assess how well we do on this score. One third of our student interns are hired by their places of employment, which at least suggests that employers are pleased with their abilities. Our job placement rate is over 80 percent. And then, late last year, Payscale.com—the salary, benefits, and compensation information company—reported that FIT alumni had the highest mid-career median salary of all 349 community colleges in the survey. Surely that would suggest that these FIT graduates managed to advance in their careers quite well.

Our students have another advantage as well. One of the additional findings in these surveys is the importance that employers attach to “applied learning.” Well, applied learning is really one of FIT’s hallmarks. With our roots in industry, we developed a pedagogy at the outset that emphasizes both theory and “applied” or “experiential” learning. Internships, senior or capstone projects, the competitions our students enter…all of these require the acquisition and application of real world skills, and I believe this helps to make our students very attractive in the job market.

None of this is “proof,” of course. I think what this report tells us is that no matter how well we think we are doing, we cannot afford to be complacent. Even if we think our students are the exception—and we have no way to “prove” that they are—we still must maintain the pressure on ourselves to ensure that when FIT students graduate, they do, indeed, possess the skills that employers value most. Our students—and their future employers—deserve no less.

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