An ambitious study carried out earlier this year by McKinsey & Company and Chegg, Inc. sought to uncover the “Voice of the Graduate” on the challenges facing higher education in the United States. While the overall tone of the results skews toward the negative, a few bright spots stood out among responses from recent graduates in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Their satisfaction with their educational experiences and their expectations for future employment were more positive than the average.
The survey of recent college graduates brought out several concrete points of reference behind the broad problem, as stated in the executive summary:
“Employers fret that too many college graduates arrive on the job without having acquired the skills and habits to succeed in the workplace. Meanwhile, the rising cost of college and the debt many students and families are expected to incur are raising questions in some quarters about the value of college as an investment, even as critics take aim at the cost structures and traditional practices of colleges and universities in general.”
Almost half of respondents, or 45 percent, reported that their current positions did not actually require a four-year degree. But 75 percent of those working in “math, physics, engineering and computer science” are in positions requiring a four-year degree, followed by “accounting, economics and finance,” at 70 percent. In “biological and environmental science,” 63 percent said their positions required a four-year degree. Those who graduated with degrees in “visual and performing arts” reported the lowest level of work in positions requiring four-year degrees: 43 percent.
In comparison to this group of workers who have graduated in the last few years, the report says, the numbers “echo findings from a recent analysis from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which showed that 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that require less than a four-year college education.”
A gap appeared in questions about preparedness for employment, as well. Among graduates of four-year colleges, 24 percent of students in math, physics, engineering and computer science said college did not prepare them for employment; 42 percent of visual and performing arts students said the same thing. Graduates of two-year colleges felt less prepared for employment overall, with students from marketing and advertising programs feeling the least prepared, at 70 percent.
McKinsey points out that attitudes of new employees, schools and employers vary widely on this issue:
“In general, our findings tracked those of McKinsey’s recent global education-to-employment survey, in which 39 percent of employers said that inadequate training was an issue with new hires. Interestingly, that survey found a sizable perception gap when it came to work readiness: 86 percent of institutions and education providers believe their graduates are adequately prepared for employment, yet only half of employers and graduates agree.”
The entire report is well worth a read. Its stated intention is to raise more questions, rather than to answer them, and whether we are new graduates or not, we would all do well to consider questions like these:
Why did almost half of respondents say they did not consider graduation rates when choosing a school? And why did almost as many say they did not consider employment rates? How can this type of information be better disseminated in order to create more realistic expectations and return on educational investment? Would it be in students’ and employers’ best interests to expand efforts to attract more students to STEM programs?
Perhaps working backward, learning from the decision-making processes of students who successfully completed STEM degrees and found well-paid and satisfying employment in their fields, is the next step in balancing the expectations for students, new graduates, employers and the colleges that are charged with educating the next generation.