The majority of employers still view a college degree as being worth it, according to a national survey from The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).
The survey – conducted online in May 2023 in partnership with Morning Consult – asked 1,010 employers – hiring managers and executives – about their views on the value of a college education and preparedness of incoming graduates into the workforce.
Findings indicated that 83% of employers are confident that higher ed is successfully preparing students for the workforce, with 48% ‘strongly’ and 35% ‘somewhat’ agreeing. 81% of employers also either ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’ agreed that getting a degree was worth it, despite the money and time involved.
Younger employers – those under 40 – seem to have more confidence in college than their older counterparts – those age 40 and above, with more of the younger employers signaling strong confidence in higher ed’s workforce preparation and degrees.
This finding is particularly relevant at a time when public sentiment for the value of higher ed is on the decline. According to a 2023 Gallup poll, 36% of respondents had “a great deal of confidence” or “quite a lot of confidence” in higher ed, a significant decline from 48% in 2018 or 57% in 2015.
Based on their responses, employers seemed to value higher ed’s capacity to teach students how to think independently and apply ideas hands-on more than anything else, with 59% and 56% of employers, respectively, saying that those characteristics, in a well-rounded education, help ‘a great deal’ for workforce success.
Similarly, employers answered that they valued problem-solving smarts – knowledge from addressing real-life problems – more than any other kind of knowledge, with 66% of employers agreeing, compared to the next most valued knowledge, knowledge from interdisciplinary thinking (53%).
And 71% of employers said that they would be “much more” likely to consider someone with experience in a job or work-study position, followed closely by internships and apprenticeships (70%).
AAC&U and Morning Consult also asked employers about how much they valued certain skills when assessing the strength of a job candidate. Learning that involved oral communication (81%) and adaptability/flexibility (81%) were seen as the most desirable skills.
Colleges and universities should be more explicit in telling the public that postsecondary instruction helps develop a wide variety of skills, said Dr. Ashley Finley, AAC&U vice president of research and senior adviser to the president.
What employers additionally want to see in someone in their workforce is drive and work ethic (81%), according to the survey, beating out even initiative and persistence. Employers under age 40 also valued desires to engage with the local community and a sense of social justice far more than employers who were 50 and above – a difference of approximately 20%.
"It's such good news for colleges and universities in how they're preparing students for the workforce,” Finley said. “Too often, we create these false binaries for students, that community engagement is important in one aspect of your life but you still have to get a job. That's a false binary, and employers under the age of 40 are suggesting why it is.
“It's that the application that you get through community-engaged experiences is absolutely preparatory for the kinds of applications that you'll need in the workforce."
In addition to the traditional college degree, microcredentials – short credentials focused on teaching particular skills – are rising in prominence and value, according to the report. Not only do 68% of employers prefer candidates with a college degree and a microcredential for entry-level positions, but 39% of employers themselves are currently offer microcredentials as well.
Slightly more employers preferred candidates with high school diplomas and microcredentials (14%) over college graduates without microcredentials (13%).
According to the report, college graduates with a microcredential in a broad skill, such as critical thinking, leadership, teamwork, and communication, are viewed just as favorably as those with a microcredential in a job-specific technical skill, such as fluency in a programming language or data management.
This appreciation for broad skills has been consistent for decades, Finley said.
“What we have seen for nearly 20 years in our research, is that employers continue to value broad skills and abilities for students,” Finley said. “What we found in 2021 and have found again in 2023 is that employers equally value certain mindsets and dispositions – things like work ethic, the idea that students have motivation and take initiative, [being] able to persist through failure, ... have a sense of self-agency in what they do – that these are just as important as other kinds of skills that students are developing while they're in college."
Amid a U.S. educational environment facing legislative and cultural attacks on what can and can’t be taught in schools, 49% of employers strongly agreed that exposure to a wide range of topics and viewpoints was important for workforce preparation. And 46% strongly agreed that all topics should be open for discussion on campuses.
“One of the prevailing critiques of colleges and universities has been that they don't provide students with the skills and dispositions necessary to thrive in the 21st-century workforce,” AAC&U President Dr. Lynn Pasquerella said in an email to Diverse. “The data presented contests these assumptions, indicating that 8 in 10 employers have high levels of confidence in today's college graduates to meet the demands of the workforce upon entry.
“Moreover, despite the push toward narrow technical training in the aftermath of the worst global pandemic in more than a century, employers reaffirmed the value they place on students who are liberally educated and have acquired a breadth and depth of knowledge, alongside certain mindsets.”