What Do Employers Want From Your College Student? A Liberal Education

There are many opinions proposed, many surveys taken, much research done regarding what employers want and expect from college graduates.  The answers may vary over the years, and may vary depending on profession or field of study.  Some skills may be very specific and others more broad.

College students often do not consider the actual skills that employers want.  Students may be thinking in terms of all-college requirements, requirements in their major, and possibly a minor, and what they need to do to graduate.  They often miss the connections between what they are doing in college and what they will need to do once they graduate — especially regarding those courses outside of their major.

As a college parent, you may want to talk with your student about what he is learning.  Ask him about the skills he is gaining in his classes.  Ask him about internships and real world application of his learning. Help him explore connections between his learning and his goals.  Help him explore the meaning of a Liberal Education. The more that your student, and you, understand and consider the meaning of his college education, the more easily he will be able to apply his learning to his life.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities defines a ”liberal education” in the following way:

Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.


This is clearly a tall order, but one which employers recognize and endorse.  It is not an education which is theoretical and impractical, but directly applicable to students’ lives.

A national survey conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in 2010 by Hart Research Associates, asked 302 executives of companies with more than 25 employees what they believed were important learning outcomes or goals for student graduates.  The results indicated that employers want more emphasis on a broad range of skills as well as in depth knowledge of a specific area.  They also placed great importance on students’ ability to apply their knowledge to the real world and to conduct research and evidence based analyses.  What follows are a few of the findings of that study.  They indicate that colleges are already doing many things well, but that employers see room for improvement as colleges prepare the employees of the future.

  • 25% of respondents feel that colleges and universities are doing a good job of preparing graduates for the workplace.
  • 90% are asking employees to take on more responsibilities and use broader skills than in the past.
  • 84% believe that it would be helpful to require students to complete some type of senior project.
  • 81% see importance in students’ research skills and ability to analyze evidence.
  • 89% look for the ability to communicate effectively — orally and in writing.
  • 81% would like to see increased focus on critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills.
  • 79% endorse increased emphasis on real-world experience through internships or other external experiences
  • 75% emphasize ethical decisions and their connections to choices and actions
  • 71% see the need for teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with diverse groups
  • 70% recognize innovation and creativity
  • 63% see the need for the ability to work with numbers and understand statistics.
  • 52% would like to see more emphasis on civic knowledge, civic participation, and community engagement.

Clearly, employers see the need for some improvement in colleges’ preparation of students for the workplace.  Most colleges are continually working to update and improve their approaches to the development of these skills — often through innovative programs across the curriculum.  However, students themselves can consider their own paths and individual emphasis on these important, broad skills.  The conversations that you, as a college parent, have with your student about his education — and the workplace — can help your student explore these vital connections that lead to that important ”liberal education.”

Related posts:

How Parents Can Help Students Understand General Education Requirements

How Does Your College Student Feel About His First Job?

Why Your College Student Should Consider an Internship

3 thoughts on “What Do Employers Want From Your College Student? A Liberal Education”

  1. Interesting comments, and they certainly suggest food for thought. One question might be whether the major task of a college education is preparation for the workplace, or whether it is to produce people who have an education/background that allows them to think clearly, know how to learn and think critically, and understand the way the world works. Is job preparation the mission of a college education? I’m not sure what the answer is – and it may be a bit of both, but the 25% “approval” rate really only judges the job preparation aspect of what colleges are doing. Is it possible that we could go too far in the direction of vocational training in colleges? Not easy questions. Thanks for raising some important issues.

  2. Funny you should mention the preparation for work force. I had a conversation with a recent grad, and that was one of their gripes…they didn’t feel well prepared for the work place. Although they had a top notch education, somehow it wasn’t enough.

  3. The 25% employer overall satisfaction rate with colleges work in preparing students for the workforce is very low. I think you are being very nice to the colleges, when stating that they are “doing many things well!” In any industry, someone who was doing work well 25% of the time would be terminated. Our colleges really need to change to better serve our students.


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