June 25, 2021

Employer views on higher education – takeaways from the 2021 AAC&U report

Posted by Laura Guertin

Since 2007, the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) has interviewed employers of college graduates to achieve alignment and understanding between employers and universities with regards to the following question: What do graduates need to know and be able to do in order to succeed in the workplaces of today and tomorrow, and how does a college education enable or contribute to the development of a shared knowledge base and skill set? Employers have expectations of recent graduates, and universities prepare students to fulfill those workforce expectations – but are the shared expectations actually being met?

AAC&U, working with Hanover Research, completed 496 online surveys of executives and hiring managers in October 2020. The results have been published the most recent edition of How College Contributes to Workforce Success: Employer Views on What Matters Most. This 32-page report from 2021 is divided into two parts: employer views on higher education and workforce preparedness, and how employer views vary by age and educational attainment. The full report can be downloaded as a PDF at: https://www.aacu.org/2021-report-employer-views-higher-education

There are a few points within the report that stood out to me right away from the Introduction section:

  • There exists substantial support among employers for the outcomes and experiences of a liberal education and employers make it clear that a liberally educated graduate is strongly positioned for success in the job market;
  • Nine in ten employers say they would be more likely to hire a job applicant who had participated in at least one of a defined set of engaging educational practices, often called “high-impact practices”; yet
  • Significantly fewer employers (only six in ten) believe college-educated applicants have received this type and level of preparation – in other words, have received a liberal education.

This image features nine key takeaways discussed in detail within the report:


So what are we as educators to do and how should we move forward? Page 32 of the report offers recommendations in the following areas:

  • Equip students to name and reflect upon the skills that matter;
  • Make mindsets and aptitudes an explicit part of learning, inside and outside the classroom;
  • Assess skills and mindsets to ensure college graduates are prepared to succeed and to advance;
  • Ensure high-impact learning experiences can be equitably accessed by students from all backgrounds and that students are supported to succeed in these experiences;
  • Give students a way to tell employers their story; and
  • Leverage general education to reinforce why breadth and depth of learning matter.

It is helpful for individual faculty to review the high-impact educational practices defined by AAC&U to see where we as individual instructors provide students experiences in our classrooms and research laboratories with practices such as collaborative assignments and community-based learning. Departments should also review the AAC&U high-impact practice list and may want to set up a department matrix (see Matrix Approaches to Program and Curriculum Design) with a listing of required courses for a student to complete their degree on one side and a listing of the high-impact practices on the other side, to see where students are engaged with these practices – and if not, which courses might be able to incorporate or further develop these practices. It is likely that faculty within the same department need to start by coming together to discuss what each other are doing in their courses around pedagogical practices and professional skill development, not just share with each other the geoscience content covered.

Although our discipline provides excellent data from employers through the AGI Workforce Program (such as Geoscience Currents) and the recently-released Vision and Change in the Geosciences: The Future of Undergraduate Geoscience Education report as to what employers are looking for and seeing in our recent geoscience graduates, it is important to also step back and take a wider view. Not all of our students will enter geoscience careers or stay within them – workforce preparation for our students needs to take into consideration what employers outside the geosciences identify as areas that will help our students succeed, no matter which career they pursue.