INDIANAPOLIS -- In an ever-changing employment world, does a college degree fully prepare newcomers to the workforce?
IUPUI is among 14 higher education institutions across North America working to find out. As participants in the Essential Employability Qualities Pilot led by The Quality Assurance Commons for Higher and Postsecondary Education, these institutions are co-designing ways to assess and affirm higher education programs that intentionally:
- Develop essential employability qualities within students.
- Engage students and employers in quality assurance.
- Assure that graduates are prepared for the employment world after they complete their program.
- Communicate openly and accurately with the public.
According to a 2015 Gallup-Purdue Index report, while 98 percent of chief academic officers rate their institutions as very or somewhat effective at preparing students for the employment world, only 11 percent of business leaders strongly agree that graduating students have the necessary skills and competencies.
"That gap is large enough to show there's a serious issue about communication on what graduates should be able to do," said Bill Plater, senior scholar at The QA Commons and executive vice chancellor and dean of the faculties emeritus at IUPUI. "We've been talking to many employers, and almost every one of them has a set of expectations of what employees need to do to be successful. Employers are great at looking at the specific skill a person needs in the field of work, but what they don't really know how to do well is assess things like critical thinking, communication skills and problem-solving."
Many employers and their respective professional associations often specify the so-called soft skills that most colleges and universities say they provide, frequently using the same words to describe the qualities employers seek, but there is little agreement on what the terms actually mean -- and what evidence of attainment is acceptable. The QA Commons is developing standards and processes to certify that a program or department actually prepares all of its graduates with the qualities that employers really want. Employers can then rely on a certified program's claim that its graduates have acquired the essential skills.
The nature of work in many fields has changed dramatically in the last few decades. For example, technology has changed manufacturing jobs from human assembly-line work to automated work, requiring employees to think differently about the manufacturing process. An aging workforce in some areas has also altered the employment landscape.
The essential employability qualities that EEQ Pilot participants seek to develop in graduates include:
- People skills such as collaboration, teamwork and cross-cultural experience.
- Problem-solving abilities such as inquiry, critical thinking and creativity.
- Professional strengths such as communication, work ethic and technological agility.
At IUPUI, bachelor of arts programs in philanthropic studies in the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy as well as IU School of Liberal Arts programs in English and the paralegal studies program, including the law in liberal arts bachelor's degree and paralegal studies certificate, are participating in the pilot.
"It's a way to develop a common language. Our language in academia doesn't necessarily match up with an employer's language," said Erin Engels, director of the paralegal studies program and an assistant clinical professor of political science in the School of Liberal Arts. "We need to communicate to students, too: You're not just learning about the history of politics and how people interact in government; we're helping you navigate the politics of the workplace."
Pilot participants met in September to work on a yearlong plan. Participants represent a range of disciplines, learning formats and degree levels and include public, private, for-profit and faith-based institutions.
"We all benefit by participating because we'll get ideas from other programs and resources to help our students," said Steve Fox, director of writing and associate professor of English in the School of Liberal Arts. "What we want to do is ultimately help our students be employable when they graduate and be able to improve communication with employers so there's good feedback among all of these parties."
The QA Commons and the EEQ Pilot are funded through the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, under a grant from Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation.