The results of a recent survey on student preparation for the workforce suggest that students are not as prepared as they should be, but John Warner argues that the data might be pointing at a different reality entirely. Gallup Executive Director, Education & Workforce Development Brandon Busteed determined that “students are not nearly as prepared as they could or should be, and they actually know it while they’re in college.” Warner dismisses this point upon examination of the original survey and report sources, concluding that there is “more a problem of student confidence, than student knowledge and illustration of the prestige gap than the skills gap.”

A Different Look at That Gallup Survey on Student Preparation

It might not be as dire as the headlines suggest.

The Strada-Gallup 2017 College Student Survey declares that “college students do not feel prepared for the workforce.”

Brandon Busteed who directs Gallup’s higher education research tells Inside Higher Ed, “Students are not nearly as prepared as they could or should be, and they actually know it while they’re in college.”

Gallup asked for the degree of agreement using a 5-point scale from 1, meaning “strongly disagree” up to 5, meaning “strongly agree” on three statements:

1. I am confident I will graduate with the knowledge and skills I need to be successful in the job market.

2. I am confident I will graduate with the knowledge and skills I need to be successful in the workplace.

3. I am confident my major field of study/studies will lead to a good job.

Gallup focused on the top-box (percent giving “5”) for each statement, emphasizing only about a third strongly agree with the first two statements, and just over half with the third.

Far be it from me to dispute Gallup’s own interpretations of their data, but looking at the numbers, I do not find the news quite so dire.

Between graduate school and returning to teaching, I spent some time working for a marketing research company, which included designing and interpreting surveys and one thing I learned is there’s a lot of different ways to slice data.

While only a third or so “strongly agree” with each of the first two statements, when you add in those who responded with “4” (agree), we gain almost an additional 40% for each, meaning the top-two box score for being “successful in the job market” is  71%, while the top-two box score for being successful in the workplace is 75%.

Perhaps even more interesting is the bottom-two box score (some measure of disagreement) is under 10%.

The top-two box score for belief that their major will lead to a “good job” is 81%. Fewer than 6% actively express a lack of confidence. We could easily write an alternate statement based on the same data saying, “Only one in twenty college students are skeptical that their major will lead to a good job.”

All in all, I believe this reflects what we should expect for students for whom the demands of the professional workplace are still largely foreign. How confident are they supposed to be in something which is almost totally unknown to them?

If you asked me for my agreement with these statements close to my own college graduation more than twenty-five years ago, I would’ve said “4,” I agree. I had no knowledge of the “job market,” and knew even less about what might be expected of me in the workplace. My high school and college work experience included camp counselor, pool maintenance, retail, and mail handling for the U.S. Postal Service.

As someone getting a B.A. in rhetoric, to feel fully confident would’ve seemed foolish.

On the other hand, I wasn’t particularly worried because I didn’t have to be. I wasn’t on the lookout for a “good job,” and I definitely wasn’t worried about a career. All I needed was a job sufficient to allow me to pay my bills while living independently from my parents. I knew at some point I’d need post-graduate education (likely law school) to launch into the professional realm, but I also knew I wasn’t ready to make that choice.

There’s other interesting tidbits in the data which complicate the message. Public service majors (education, social work, criminal justice) are more likely than any other category to be confident in their skills when it comes to finding a job and being successful. STEM majors are only slightly higher than liberal arts majors when it comes to their confidence that the skills they graduate with will help them be successful in the workplace (36% to 32% top-box). If STEM majors are being trained in clearly practical skills, the message has escaped them as much as it has liberal arts majors.

STEM majors are most likely to believe they will get a “good” job, suggesting respondents interpret “good” at least to some degree as lucrative.

Older students are more confident than younger students about getting a job and succeeding once there, which makes sense. Having experienced more of the world, they have a better sense of how and where their education will make a difference.

The Gallup report has some useful things to say about the importance of faculty and staff in helping students understand how their educations relate to future employment, but this appears to be less a matter of specific services, and more about attitudes and beliefs, inducing students to trust that they’ve acquired the skills and experiences which will help them transition from school to work.

Like a lot of these accountability related concerns about higher ed, they seem to be more prevalent when applied to non-elite institutions and students.

Nobody seems worried about the skills gap[1] when it comes to the privileged.

I did not go to an elite school, but I knew I had a home to go to if necessary, and parents willing to help me with law school if I finally came to my senses. You won’t find philosophy majors at Harvard sweating a skills gap when Goldman Sachs comes calling. English majors from Williams and Amherst are able to translate their knowledge of 19th century literature into gigs with McKinsey consulting.

The big difference between when I graduated from college and today’s students is how significantly we’ve shrunk the margin of error. I wasn’t worried because I came of age in an era when my college tuition cost less than $10,000 for four years, rather than the $50-60,000 it costs now for the equivalent degree. The pressure to find a “good” job, rather than just any job is surely greater.

But macroeconomic trends which have been distributing wealth upwards are largely out of the power of higher education institutions to resist. Corporations lament unprepared graduates, but refuse to spend money to train them, something which used to be considered standard.

As Matt Reed said yesterday, we’ve spent years “eating the young,” as we make entering independent adulthood more and more difficult.

There’s no question that more proactive counseling would be a good thing, particularly for students who don’t have the benefit of families or connections or matriculation from elite institutions to fall back on, but this isn’t a crisis which demands a radical reshaping of the institutional mission the somewhat sensationalist headlines and the persistent pushing of the “skills gap” myth suggests. It’s more a problem of student confidence, than student knowledge and illustration of the prestige gap than the skills gap.

When students do enter the workplace, they quickly realize they’re more prepared than they knew, while also seeing that there’s always more to learn as well.

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