So what is a college degree worth?

So what is a college degree worth? The answer depends on whom you ask.

Fewer than half of the adults surveyed in a Gallup Poll earlier this year had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the nation’s college and universities. When business executives and hiring managers were asked the question this past spring by Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in a recently released survey funded by Newman’s Own Foundation, the answer was a world apart: 63 percent expressed quite a lot or a great deal of confidence in colleges and universities. Perhaps even more important, strong majorities of executives (82 percent) and hiring managers (75 percent) believe that it is very important or absolutely essential for people today to complete a college education.  

A deeper dive into the data is instructive for those at the helm of institutions of higher learning, because it provides a blueprint for providing an education that enriches students while providing the essential tools necessary for success in today’s competitive, knowledge-based job market. 

Executives (57 percent) and hiring managers (60 percent) believe that college graduates are well prepared for the entry-level positions they occupy, but they believe they are less well-prepared to do higher-level work, and that is a concern we must address. Only 34 percent and 25 percent, respectively, said graduates have the requisite skills and knowledge to advance. The skills gap, according to the business people surveyed, includes oral communication, critical thinking, ethical judgment, working effectively in teams, written communication and real-world application of skills and knowledge. Other gap areas ranked only slightly less: locating, organizing and evaluating information from multiple sources, analyzing complex problems, working with people from different backgrounds, being innovative and creative, and staying current on changing technologies. We are building a strong foundation for our students to get a start in a professional career, but we are not doing enough to help them reason, analyze, write effectively and, perhaps most important, adapt. Adaptability and flexibility in the face of rapidly changing technology and a globally interdependent, diverse society is more critical than ever.

The data in the survey does not simply show us there is a path to progress, it illuminates the way. The executives and hiring managers tell us almost unanimously — 93 percent and 94 percent — that they are more likely to hire candidates with intern and apprentice experience. There is not even a close second in this category.

America’s colleges and universities must design and develop comprehensive experiential-education programs grounded in the liberal arts and sciences. We could even go so far as to require it for graduation. At Westfield State University, more than 400 employers have a student on their staff during the school year, and the school consistently gets positive reviews from the students and from employers.

There is still a divide in higher education. Some faculty members and administrators believe liberal arts is just about building the foundation, not the complete structure, and they oppose efforts to broaden what they see as more career-based training, seeking to leave that to graduate or technical programs. Yet, colleges and universities must adapt in just the same way that we expect our graduates to adapt to a changing workplace. We can’t stay tethered to an approach that may have served us well decades ago but is clearly not keeping pace with the demands of business and industry.

This doesn’t mean we should reduce our emphasis on the humanities and arts — these are essential to enabling students to flourish fully as individuals and members of a community. However, we must help students to bridge the gap between knowledge and practice. Our institutions of higher learning must prepare students for work, citizenship and life. That is absolutely our value proposition. With the new data from the business community validating this belief, we must more fully commit ourselves to the vision of a more pragmatic liberal arts education.

Ramon S. Torrecilha is the president of Westfield State University. Lynn Pasquerella is the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and was previously president of Mount Holyoke College.