The Impact of Undergraduate Education on Workplace Writing: Are Students Ready to Write?
In an increasingly competitive American job market, many have begun to question the value of college and university education. Are students receiving the training they need in order to write in the workplace? Are these higher education institutions placing enough value on practical skills, or is too much time spent on academic pursuits? Is the four-year degree still worthwhile, despite high graduate unemployment and rising student debt? The reason I chose to write about this topic is because the value of university education is so meaningful to me. Thus, the exigency for my research was to discover the mostly absent voice of the student perspective on university studies and how these studies prepared (or didn’t) prepare graduates for the workplace.
In addition, there is a recent push to change existing paradigms and shift college education toward the practical-skill-based realm at the expense of academic pursuits. However, colleges and universities maintain a larger societal mission to produce well-rounded, thoughtful, and academically curious citizens. Would this trade-off be worthwhile? One way to answer this question is to find out what graduates think about both the practical and academic. After all, students are the ones affected by these changes--shouldn't their voices be heard?
The American Job Landscape
The decision to pursue a college or university education is one that most high school graduates make. Recent studies find that as of “October 2011, 68.3 percent of 2011 high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities” (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). Over time, “enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000. Between 2000 and 2010, enrollment increased 37 percent, from 15.3 million to 21.0 million” (National Center for Education Statistics). Together, these figures indicate the increasing importance of higher education.
These trends are altogether unsurprising. The American job market is increasingly competitive, especially due to the recent economic downturn. The benefits of earning a college degree are well documented, and it is estimated that “a person with a Bachelor's degree will earn, on average, almost twice as much as workers with a high school diploma over a lifetime” (Earn My Degree.com). Thus, college education is seen as a path to better opportunity, pay, and prestige. However, there is increasing concern about the benefits of higher education. Students who “borrowed for college and earned bachelor’s degrees in 2011 graduated with an average $26,600 in student loans” (Gallegos). These average debt amounts are only increasing. When coupled with an 8.8% unemployment rate for graduates, many have begun to ask whether or not a college degree is actually worthwhile.
Perhaps the biggest problem graduates face in the American job landscape is increasing employer dissatisfaction. College and university graduates must be ready to meet the demands of their future employers. In almost all professional workplace environments, written communication is essential. Yet, written communication is a key area in which employers are increasingly becoming frustrated with new hires.
Recent studies have found that many employers are dissatisfied with the initial abilities of college graduates. A 2011 survey conducted by the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and Schools found that “only 7 percent of hiring decision-makers believe the higher education system does an ‘excellent’ job of preparing students for the workplace” (Finklemeyer). In addition, of the 1006 employed professionals polled, “45 percent of these decision-makers indicated that most students would be better served by an education that specifically prepares them for the workplace” (Finkelmeyer). Less than “10 percent of employers thought colleges did an ‘excellent’ job of preparing students for work” (Johnson). These professionals, who represent a myriad of industries, have indicated that finding the right applicant has grown harder over time, and that these applicants lacked adaptability and critical thinking skills (Johnson).
The lack of graduate preparedness for workplace writing is not simply a recent concern. In 2004, The College Board conducted a survey of 120 corporations. This study found that according to these companies, “writing is a regular part of the job for two-thirds of all employees” (Eatherington). With respect to workplace writing, “a third of all workers fall short of employers' expectations in written communication skills” (Eatherington). Training employees on the job is not a viable option, as costs of “remedying deficiencies in writing costs American corporations as much as $3.1 billion annually” (Eatherington). Since these costs were estimated in 2004, it is safe to assume that the figures have only grown.
College graduates have incentive to change employer perceptions because they need these job opportunities. Employers want more skilled personnel with writing ability because these employees are more productive, prepared, and less costly. In order to achieve the goals of both of these groups, a paradigm shift may be necessary in regard to teaching college students how to write well. However, it is important to ask questions about the cost of an increased focus on practical skills at the expense of academic pursuits. Many studies have surveyed employers about their perception of college graduates; however, less research has investigated how graduates feel about their education.