Closing the Expectation Gap Between Students and Employers

April 24, 2015

By Marty Tillman

Even though we finally have good economic news for the Class of 2015, this remains a confusing topic to write about. There is clear evidence of the financial gains for students with BA degrees versus those without the credential, and yet there is also incontrovertible research showing that employers (largely surveyed in the private sector) believe that students are graduating without the skill sets that they need to be hired (especially true in the technical fields).

A January 2015 survey conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, titled "Falling Short: Selected Findings from Online Surveys of Employers and College Students,", includes data from a reported 400 executives at both private-sector and nonprofit organizations (rarely covered in such reports), and 613 students from both 2- and 4-year institutions.

Here are a few findings that I find especially significant:

  • Nearly all the employers surveyed (96%) agree that, regardless of their chosen field of study, all students should have experiences in college that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different from their own; including 59% who strongly agree with this statement.
  • The majority of employers surveyed think that having both field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of skills and knowledge that apply to a variety of fields is important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success at their company.
  • Large majorities of employers surveyed say they are more likely to consider a job candidate who has participated in an internship, senior project, collaborative research project, field-based project in a diverse community setting with people from different backgrounds, or a community-based project.
  • When it comes to considering a job candidate, employers value the completion of an internship or apprenticeship most among the applied and project-based learning experiences tested. Nearly all of the employers surveyed say they would be more likely to consider hiring a recent college graduate who had completed an internship or apprenticeship, including three in five (60%) who say their company would be much more likely to consider that candidate.
  • The majority of employers surveyed feel that colleges and universities must make improvements to ensure graduates' workplace success. Fully 58% of employers think that improvements are needed to ensure that graduates gain the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in entry-level positions at their company, while only 42% think that colleges and universities are currently doing a good job of preparing their graduates. And an even larger proportion (64%) think that improvements are needed to ensure that graduates have the skills and knowledge needed to advance within their company.
  • Many of the employers surveyed feel that college graduates are falling short in their preparedness in several areas, including the ones employers deem most important for workplace success. College students, however, are notably more optimistic about their level of preparedness across learning outcomes.

This last sentence demonstrates a disconnect between employers' perceptions of graduate "readiness" and the belief by graduates that they are, in fact, "ready" (i.e., skilled enough) to enter the workforce.

How can we close the expectation gap?

  • Create a campus culture which fully integrates career development in and out of the classroom.
  • Harmonize student advising between the study abroad and career service staff so students maximize the value of their international experience.
  • Create student career action plans which link their coursework, off-campus experiential learning (domestic or international), and cocurricular activities.
  • Educate students about the specific skill sets required to enter the workforce in their chosen field.
  • Teach students how to market themselves and their skills using social media (e.g., LinkedIn), informational interviews, alumni networking, etc.

Interested in learning more? Join me on Thursday, May 28 from 2:00 p.m.–2:45 p.m. for my presentation, "Closing the Expectation Gap Between Students and Employers," in the Career Center located in the Expo Hall.


Marty TillmanMarty Tillman is a longtime NAFSA member and thought leader on the linkage of education abroad with student career development. He is the former associate director of career services at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.


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