A college degree matters more than ever before. In the post-recession economy, job gains have been far better for those with college degrees than for those with only a high school degree.1 Students are clear that a primary purpose for enrolling in college is to get a good job and to put themselves on a path to a successful career. Employers and the public increasingly feel that universities are not doing enough to prepare students for employment. Universities feel a degree must involve a broad education, though certainly many, probably most, in the public university community agree on the need to prepare students for employment.
Broader education and employment preparation are not mutually exclusive goals, nor have they ever been. Public universities should focus on both goals to best serve students, society, and the economy. To that end, public universities should continue, decisively and with resolve, to evolve and incorporate strategies to increase student employment and career success.
Researchers estimate that by 2020 the U.S. economy will increase by 55 million new job openings—24 million new jobs and 31 million created by baby boomer retirements. Sixty-five percent of all jobs will require some postsecondary education and training beyond high school. Many millions of those new jobs will require college degrees that include key employment skills. Education for employment upon graduation is important, but a four-year degree should also put graduates in a better position to adapt as employment requirements change throughout their careers.
Public universities should ensure the education they provide students is responsive to the job and career needs of society in addition to the lifetime preparation needs of those students. Many institutions already excel at aligning learning and career outcomes and these successes provide great examples for higher education to improve their responsiveness.
The renewed commitment and responsiveness do not come without challenges. Institutions face a rapidly evolving economy and workforce that have resulted in increased job mobility. Universities are tasked with preparing students with skills that will serve them throughout lifetimes that may include major shifts within and across various career paths. These workforce shifts are coupled with shifting student demographics and increased demands from stakeholders for institutions to do more for students—often with decreases in state appropriations.
Despite the challenges institutions face, many have achieved success through carefully developed strategies that seek to address our nation’s workforce needs. Public universities should maintain their commitment to broad educational goals and simultaneously renew our commitment and responsiveness to students and the nation’s workforce needs. This requires institutions to consider strategies to engage with at least three stakeholders: students, employers, and policymakers.
The APLU Ready for Jobs, Careers, and a Lifetime report provides institutions with research regarding the needs facing our students, communities, and nation with attention to both the challenges and opportunities institutions will face to meet these needs. The report also urges public universities to reaffirm their commitment and responsiveness with strategies aimed at preparing students to meet the workforce and social problems of our time.
APLU will work with its members to continue development of promising and innovative strategies that prepare students for employment as we work to increase the number of graduates.