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Aligning College Majors to the Workforce

Media coverage on which college majors deliver the best job and income prospects are enough to confound and confuse any higher education student, and cynical and seemingly pervasive headlines like "10 worst college majors" certainly don't help matters.

Contrary to these media claims, there are ways to help students learn what they love while preparing them for the workforce. Sounds obvious, doesn't it? But, while many assume this is already happening in schools across the country, it isn't.

Here's why:

  • Perception gap. New graduates consistently think they are prepared in areas where employers do not agree. A new Association of American Colleges and Universities survey found that in a number of key areas (oral communication, written communication, critical thinking, being creative), students aremore than twice as likely as employers to think they are being well prepared more than twice as likely as employers to think they are being well prepared. The perception gap extends to faculty. According to a McKinsey & Company Center for Government report, 72% of educators believe graduates and new hires are ready for the challenges of work.
  • "Not my job." Faculty generally do not see themselves in the job training business, but rather in the education business: imparting intellectual skills and habits of learning. They may spend considerable time and effort developing coursework, but the feedback loop that informs and shapes how and what they teach often doesn't include student outcomes after graduation.
  • Diverse student needs. College campuses are seeing a more diversity among students today than ever before; the National Center for Education Statistics reports that the vast majority of enrolled undergraduates attending universities across the country are nontraditional students. They are now the new majority. Students enrolled in college are at many different places in their lives: many are young adults still exploring career options, while others are employed workers seeking to advance in their career or adults seeking degrees that will allow them to change fields. Often, these diverse student needs leads to a gap between student expectations and what it delivered in the classroom.
  • Weak links. The connection between many degree programs and associated jobs is weak and inconsistent. Students who major in subjects like engineering tend to learn and apply relevant skills, because the industry is often directly involved with the college and what is taught. Disciplines like psychology and history are not well connected. This variation and lack of transparency is a disservice to students and the job market.

Institutions of higher education need to know how to overcome these challenges to guide graduates into employment.

How to Ensure EVERY Major is Career-Worthy

Two significant efforts can bridge the divide between the classroom and the workforce: Tuning and the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP).

  • Tuning is a faculty-driven process that identifies: a) what a student should know and b) what a student should be able to do in a chosen discipline. The process is designed to make higher education outcomes more transparent to all stakeholders, including students, employers, and parents, which means expectations are made clear at the start and the quality of degrees is ensured across institutions.

    The process of tuning involves methods like reaching out directly to companies who employ alumni to ask about student preparation for career. This information feeds the process administrators and faculty use to determine what students need to know, understand, and be able to do upon graduation; both within the major program area and as part of the general education they receive. According to James Grossman, the Executive Director of the American Historical Association (AHA), the Tuning process helps history faculty and students better understand that what they do in history is aligned with what employers want: "employers want graduates to be able to collect, weigh and interpret evidence to make judgments and decisions. History majors learn these skills."

    Continuing to collect this information ensures education keeps pace with industry progress and innovation.

  • Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) is a framework that looks beyond the discipline of study to the overall skills, knowledge and ability acquired in the college experience at each degree level: associate, bachelor and masters.

500 institutions across the US are already engaged in both of these programs.

America's postsecondary educational institutions comprise the largest career preparation system in the world, but its value is in serious question. Tuning and DQP applied on every campus and in online program can lead to fewer dropouts, seamless transitions from community college to four-year universities, and greater student success.

About the Author

Dr. Brad C. Phillips, President/Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Evidence-Based Change (IEBC), leads the organization’s focus on improving educational practice and outcomes in schools, colleges, and universities, including its facilitation of Tuning USA. Dr. Phillips has pioneered the collaborative collection and sharing of data across educational segments, the effective use of meaningful data, and its connection to faculty use and institutional change. He is a frequent keynote speaker, author of articles, and recipient of recognitions and honors. He also serves as a data facilitator for the Lumina-funded Achieving the Dream initiative. Dr. Phillips is also the founder of both the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success (Cal-PASS) and IEBC.