Policy Analysis | May 2013

The Higher Education Disconnect

Jonathan Watts Hull

Last year, Florida Governor Rick Scott told radio host Marc Bernier that the state "[w]e don't need a lot more anthropologists in the state...I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees." In a follow up discussion with the Sarasota Herald Tribune he elaborated that he wanted to use taxpayer dollars for education that would create jobs, and specifically, not anthropology.

The issue was not anthropology per se (Scott's daughter earned a degree in anthropology from the College of William and Mary), but in the utility of an anthropology degree. Governors across the region have begun to call into question the value of college degrees in the liberal arts. More recently, Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina echoed the complaint that state universities offer courses of study that do not lead to employment. While singling out different disciplines, his remarks signaled an interest in making support for higher education conditional upon how institutions support broader public policy objectives. The governors are not questioning degree programs in the liberal arts themselves, but the need for state subsidies for liberal arts students. According to both Scott and McCrory (and others), there is a disconnect between higher education and businesses, and it is in the state's interest to fix it.

The Disconnect

A recent study commissioned by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media gauges just how significant the disconnect between higher education and business is, but it also illustrates some of the complications associated with solutions being advanced to resolve it. Fully half of businesses surveyed reported having difficulty finding qualified recent graduates for open positions. The skills they most noted that students were lacking include adaptability, communication skills and the ability to solve complex problems. In many ways, this suite of skills is the very one a liberal arts education is intended to develop, regardless of discipline.

The ability to translate the manner in which these skills are developed in an academic setting to a "real world" environment is more difficult to teach, however. More often than not, this is developed through workplace settings, internships, employment, and volunteer settings, that provide college students windows into how businesses and organizations operate. For this reason, while employers in the survey reported valuing a college major in making hiring decisions, more weight was placed on internships and employment, and almost as much on volunteer experience, as on the major itself, and more than on relevance of coursework, overall GPA or college reputation. Colleges frequently work to facilitate these experiences for interested students, but, outside of a few specific areas of study, such field work is not a component of degree completion.

The disconnect not is only between employers and higher education. In many ways, parents and students are demanding different services from higher education than business. While employers in the survey ranked college reputation at the bottom of the scale for importance, students tend to rank academic reputation highest among other factors. Once enrolled, students continue to report a drive to pursue academic excellence, even though employers place greater emphasis on their pursuit of more real world experiences.


The divide between higher education and business may be narrowing, however. Recent surveys of students point to increased attention to the employment prospects of an institution's graduates when making college selections. In the annual American Freshman survey from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California Los Angeles, 63.8 percent of freshmen rated academic reputation as very important in their college choice, compared to 55.9 percent responding that the college's graduates get good jobs as very important. In 1993, these figures were 50.9 percent and 39.4 percent, respectively.

What is less clear, and what the Chronicle/API survey reveals, is that while colleges and employers both value similar skills, the ways in which those are demonstrated may be vastly different. College students and faculty tend to view higher education as a course of study that prepares individuals for participation in employment and business. Businesses seem to use college completion as a filter, helping to sort out candidate's abilities to persist and accomplish long-term objectives. Within some fields, such as engineering and information technology, degree area matters quite a bit; for others, such as sales and marketing, the degree is less a factor than the skills that surround it.

Connecting Jobs and College

States are demanding more from their higher education systems and leveraging the funding systems in order to achieve desired public policy outcomes. This same strategy is being considered to encourage colleges to do more to make their graduates more marketable. Governors McCrory of North Carolina and Walker of Wisconsin both have introduced proposals to link graduate employment to institutional funding. Essentially, the concept would add to the completion calculation used to measure college performance a measure of whether graduates found jobs. Reporting this information to potential students would be an added benefit, providing increased information to help guide decisions.

The notion of using employment outcomes (and other performance measures) to fund higher education is a concern to many in academia. They note that it drastically alters the mission of most public colleges and universities, providing a broad education to the state's population, shifting it to serving as essentially higher-level employment training programs. Furthermore, there is an additional concern that those non-technical programs that are most closely aligned with employment, notably education and business schools, lack the academic rigor found elsewhere in universities. Moreover, employment measures are perhaps unreliable, as they may say as much about the population being served by an institutions as it does about institutional quality itself.

The Policy Handle

Degrees and certificates matter economically for students and, by extension, to states which benefit from the higher levels of employment, higher incomes, and greater job stability that accompany them. Over the past 30 years, the focus of the value calculation on higher education has been slowly shifting from a public good that should be broadly supported to a private benefit that requires more limited subsidy. The current discussion being advanced in some states further refines the discussion of state support by identifying priority degree programs for state support.

Post-graduation employment as a measure of program quality provides mixed information in other ways as well. Some degree programs may be gateways to further studies, including medicine and law, while others provide public benefit but may not lead directly to employment. Additionally, employment measures on their own may not be representative of school quality, since any individual employer may not hire enough graduates from any single institution to become a good gauge of their suitability and likely base decisions on factors outside their experience with the school. Furthermore, as the most recent recession demonstrated, during an economic downturn, for the most part, recent college graduates suffer first in comparison to more seasoned degree and certificate holders. Indeed, in a study from the Heldrich Institute of Rutgers University, one-third of recent colleges indicated that their first job was either not at all related or not very closely related to their degree; 39 percent indicated that the degree was closely related. The mismatch between degree and employment greatly reduces the power of post-graduate employment as a metric for determining degree or institutional quality.

Differentiated tuition, charging students more or less depending on the degree they are pursuing, was among the recommendations from Florida Governor Rick Scott's Blue Ribbon Task Force on State Higher Education Reform. While differentiated tuition is relatively common in higher education, in most instances colleges were charging more for high-cost courses or programs, such as nursing, engineering, and business. The Florida recommendation shifts this calculus to create incentives, through lower costs, for students to pursue degrees in fields for which the state has job demand or wishes to grow a professional workforce. For those degrees outside the designated areas, students would face higher costs at public universities. This approach provides states with a policy lever that could advance the public interest and reward public investment, but there is very little research on how responsive students are to such tuition signals. Moreover, it is uncertain the size of discount that would be necessary to encourage participation, with a smaller discount potentially not shifting enrollment and degree decisions.

Does this mean the end of the state subsidized anthropology degree? Unlikely, at least in the near future. As the share of state funding for higher education remains low relative to student contributions, students' academic demands would seem to rule out a sea change. But, as states emerge from the Great Recession and begin to look strategically at restoring cuts to higher education and making new investments in the quality of their workforces, they will have the flexibility and the focus, perhaps, to shift the discussion in higher education to one where career outcomes are a significant factor in program support.