Career Readiness: Don’t Expect Too Much from Colleges

A few weeks ago, Hart Research Associates released a report entitled “Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn.” The report listed the findings of a survey of 302 employers whose firms have 25+ employees, with at least one-fourth of new hires possessing a two-year or four-year college degree. It was commissioned by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, apparently to determine how well post-secondary school curricula match up with workplace demands.

One of the broadest indicators: “Only one in four employers thinks that two-year and four-year colleges are doing a good job in preparing students for the challenges of a global economy.”

Interestingly, employers didn’t endorse a training-oriented kind of preparation. They preferred “a blend of liberal and applied learning.” Indeed, they emphasized not only skills and knowledge tailored to a specific field, but also “a broad range of skills and knowledge.”

Because of the focus on the “global economy,” on the actual conditions of the downturn and the “more complex” realities of our hyper-connected world, the report speaks of “active learning,” “real-world settings,” “cultural and ethnic diversity,” “the challenges of today’s global economy,” “ethical decision-making,” and “emerging educational practices.” These ideas and terms are common enough in education circles.

But the report tempers them with what is, I think, the key finding in the survey. When Hart presented employers with a list of “learning outcomes,” something else came out firmly at the top. Not “critical thinking,” “cultural diversity,” global awareness,” or “collaborative abilities.” Instead, 89 percent of those surveyed identified the old-fashioned, straightforward, nuts-and-bolts “ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing.” (“Critical thinking and analytical reasoning” came in second at 81 percent.)

That ranking specifies where the worst employee deficit lies. Businesses want employees to write well, period, and they want colleges to teach students to write well.

The message is clear, but there’s a problem. Writing instruction is a slow, labor-intensive process. Much of it has to happen in one-on-one conferences with student and teacher working together to revise a rough draft, discussing and altering verbs, punctuation, syntax . . . Teachers have to participate in the composing-revising process for every student, for each one has different strengths and weaknesses and habits that need to be developed or broken.

What college instructor has the time? Regular faculty at research institutions have research demands that pull them away from freshmen and sophomores and pressure them to minimize out-of-class contact. Adjuncts and other non-tenure-track faculty don’t have the research obligations, but they usually have three or four sections of freshman comp to cover—100 or more students. No way can they give them the tutelage necessary to boost their prose.

Only at small, expensive liberal arts colleges do you have the conditions of manageable class sizes and faculty focus on teaching. They make up a tiny portion of the undergraduate population in the United States.

In other words, employers shouldn’t expect colleges to instill the writing skills employees need. The duty falls on high schools, whether they like it or not and whether it is fair or not. We need young Americans by age 18 to be able to read a scientific study and write a clear, cogent summary of it. They must be able to compose a piece of business correspondence with unambiguous assertions and tight transitions. They need to respect the difference between active and passive verbs, to get their modifiers straight, and to observe the conventions of Standard English.

Those are the middle- and high-school teachers’ jobs. Let’s realize that for all the talk about 21st-century skills, new literacies, global thinking, and diversity, the foundation of contemporary achievement still rests in linear, direct, proper writing.

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