The Association of American Colleges and Universities published a recent study entitled, Raising the Bar, Employer Views On College Learning In The Wake Of the Economic Downturn. Performed by Hart Research Associates, respondents included 302 private sector employers (owners, CEOs, presidents, C-suite level executives, and vice presidents) who had at least 25 employees with 25% or more of new hires having attained either an associates or bachelor degree.

The increasing demands of the workplace have forced employers to hire employees who possess a broader set of skills and higher levels of learning than in the past. According to the study, only 1 in 4 employers believe college degrees are enough to prepare students for work in this global economy.

Has US Higher Education failed to teach skills

Employers admit that their expectations of employees have increased due to the challenging demands facing employees today. According to the study, approximately 88% agree that students need to be equipped with a higher level of learning and knowledge to succeed in their organizations. The challenges are more complex than they were years ago and key skills are needed to thrive.

Has US Higher Education failed to teach skills - part 2

According to the above data, 68% of employers feel that four-year colleges need to make improvements to prepare students for the workplace. The majority think that some improvements, rather than significant improvements are needed.

Real World Examples

Robert D. Atkinson, Ph.D., President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, wrote an article entitled, The Failure of American Higher Education for the Huffington Post. In it, he cites the shortcomings of new hires in the workplace. As the president of a DC-based think tank, he has been involved in the hiring process of many new college graduates. Due to the poor quality of education as witnessed on interviews, the company has decided to send a short quiz to promising applicants to weed out the low performers. Atkinson was surprised to find that most of the applicants could not perform simple tasks adequately. In a recent hiring process, out of twenty applicants, only one passed the test. Even more surprising—the nineteen applicants hailed from top-tier institutions.

Atkinson offers more evidence to corroborate his opinions. According to national tests, among recent four-year college graduates, less than 40% were proficient in prose, document and quantitative literacy.

The Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education notes, “There are … disturbing signs that many students who do earn degrees have not actually mastered the reading, writing, and thinking skills we expect of college graduates. Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined.”

Why are colleges failing to instruct students on basic skills?

It seems as if basic tasks such as grammar and math are sideswiped by other subjects. Some would suggest that colleges need to focus more on conventional teaching. Or maybe the Internet has distracted today’s students.

According to Atkinson, colleges primarily center their instruction on teaching content, rather than basic skills. Most college faculty are more interested in teaching academia and the subjects on which they are passionate, rather than the basic skills of research, logic, writing or debate. For most jobs in this current economy, these skills are more important than basic content, unless the position is more science and engineering based. What matters is that students acquire these basic skills so they can properly contribute to the success of an employer.

To add insult to injury, many college graduates feel they are shortchanged. According to a study performed by Roper Organization, half of recent graduates do not feel they got their money’s worth with their education. Why? The American Council of Trustees and Alumni rate schools by how many core subjects they offer. Upon review of 1,000 colleges and universities, 29% require two or fewer core subjects to graduate, while only 5% require a basic economics course. These same statistics hold true for U.S. government or history courses.

Atkinson believes a solution is imminent. “In K-12, we have learned the hard way what happens when we act too slowly to shake up how we teach our kids. Let’s act more quickly when it comes to higher education and preserve and strengthen this pillar of our economic strength and source of future prosperity. We owe it to the young people often paying over $50,000 a year and we owe it to ourselves as a nation.” (Atkinson, 2010)


Huffington Post. (2010). The Failure of American Higher Education. Retrieved from

The News Tribune. (2011). U.S. Higher Education Failing to Focus on Basic Skills. Retrieved from

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