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.
At the system’s Board of Governors meeting in August, however, some board members and system officials — echoing recommendations made by the surveyed employers — proposed expanding career counseling and internship opportunities.
First-term BOG member Joe Knott, a Raleigh attorney, questioned that approach. “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.”
One way to “place more into [students]” would be to improve 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 many graduates are lacking.
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, implementation of a reform plan that was introduced two years ago has languished. In 2013, system leaders 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, 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, the council opted to create its own assessment, which has not yet been developed fully.
The push to create a new test of students’ thinking and writing skills specifically for the UNC system raised some eyebrows. A variety of tests are in use throughout the country and at some UNC schools, including the CLA, Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency, and ETS Proficiency Profile. Using a national test for comparison with other states’ universities might offer a relevant basis of comparison.
But those tests may be telling a story that some university officials don’t want to hear.
Regarding the CLA, test results 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 graduates were ill-prepared for the white collar work force because they lacked the skills honed by a quality general education.
The following conclusions from the UNC system’s survey barely focused on 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.”
The rare criticisms in the report related to students’ lack of communication skills and the “concern that student expectations relating to compensation, advancement, and work ethic are somewhat inflated and naive.”
Enhancing career services could align students’ workplace expectations with real-world experience more closely. Other issues revealed in the survey, however, such as poor work ethic, seem to be of a personal nature, and may not be solved by career counseling alone.
Jesse Saffron is a senior writer for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.