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College & Workforce Readiness

College Leaders: Preparing Students for Careers Isn’t Top Priority

By Catherine Gewertz — November 15, 2017 2 min read
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Preparing students for the workforce isn’t the most important purpose of higher education, according to the trustees that lead the country’s colleges and universities.

That’s one of the findings of a survey released this week. The AGB 2017 Trustee Index, conducted by the polling organization Gallup for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, asks trustees to reflect on questions about higher education’s priorities. The AGBUC represents about 50,000 trustees. Gallup conducted the online survey of about 1,400 of them, from public and private institutions, in March and April.

The association commissioned the survey as part of its new Guardians Initiative, which aims to enlist trustees in rebuilding the public’s faith in higher education.

Only 22 percent of the trustees surveyed said that preparing students for careers is the most important role that colleges and universities can play. Preparing graduates to lead meaningful lives and be engaged citizens took the top spots. Making sure they’re ready for work came in third.

While preparing students for the workforce was third on the list, 53 percent of trustees said they think higher education is doing a good job getting students ready for jobs. They were tougher on whether colleges and universities are actually responding to the needs of the workforce, though: Just over one-third agreed that they’re doing a good job with that.

Only 36 percent of the trustees said they think colleges and universities have a good idea of what employers are looking for in job candidates.

When trustees were asked to name their top concerns about the future of higher education, price topped the list. Sixty-eight percent said the cost of college for students and families was their biggest worry.

Here are a few other highlights from the trustees’ perspectives on issues facing higher education:

  • 57 percent agree that public perceptions of higher education have declined over the last 10 years.
  • 34 percent say higher education’s business model—its “mission, market, and revenue structure"—must change “drastically.” Another 58 percent say business models must change “moderately.” They acknowledged that institutions might be unwilling, or unable, to make those changes, however.
  • 23 percent have contacted a member of Congress in the past year to discuss a higher education issue. That finding suggests that trustees “could be playing a bigger role” in advancing change, the study concludes. (Trustees of public institutions came in with a much higher average: 39 percent.)

  • 72 percent say that the cost of earning a college degree is too high compared with the value of earning a degree.
  • More than half (54 percent) say there are many ways to succeed in life without a college degree. Put a slightly different way, 56 percent of the trustees disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, “Everyone needs a college degree to order to have a great life.”

Art: Getty Images

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.