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Roadmap for a Career-Ready Curriculum

Higher education’s value is as high as ever, but its offerings must meet employer demands and adequately prepare students for their roles in the workforce.

Education in general, and higher education in particular, is on the brink of a huge disruption. Two big questions, which were once so well settled that we ceased asking them, are now up for grabs. What should young people be learning? And what sorts of credentials indicate they’re ready for the workforce? —Daniel H. Pink

There is little contestation that both higher education and the global labor market are undergoing rapid and remarkable change. What remains to be seen is the degree to which higher education can meet growing labor force demands for a breadth of durable skills (e.g., critical thinking, communication, creativity) and the degree to which employers will be engaged as active partners with colleges and universities in supporting, rather than devaluing, college credentials. We argue there is much to be gained in the partnership between higher education and employers, but that potential lies in confronting the exquisite tension between the world of learning and the world of work. As Pink suggests in the above quote, what might have once been assumed to be higher education’s self-evident role in supplying the breadth of skills necessary to address today’s workforce complexities is no longer so obvious.

Despite an abundance of public perception surveys pointing to widespread skepticism in the value of higher education, employers in fact remain consistent supporters of the college degree. AAC&U research has long highlighted employers’ endorsement of the skills and experiences students gain in college and their relevance to workforce success. For example, AAC&U’s most recent research, found that 83% of employers surveyed either “strongly” or “somewhat agreed” with the statement, “I am confident that higher education is preparing graduates to succeed in the workforce.” Nearly half of employers (48%) “strongly agreed” with this statement. It is the particularities of the skills and experiences that employers value, however, that provides the greatest clarity in finding the authentic alignment between college learning and workforce preparation. Increasingly, durable skills are in greatest demand.

Aligning Skills

The specific nature of individual jobs often obscures the fact that the very nature of work is imbued with a range of broad skills that not only allow for needed knowledge, efficiency and problem-solving within any one job but also empower workers to consistently upskill and reskill. Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicate that people born between 1957 and 1964 held an average of 12.7 jobs in their lifetime, half of which occurred between the ages of 18–24. The ability to successfully navigate the volume of occupational shifts over the course of one’s career trajectory speaks to a skillset that demands both the ability to fulfill job specific tasks and also a breadth of durable skills that can be transferred between work environments that enable flexibility, adaptability and collaboration.

Moreover, there is wide and enduring evidence that we can name what comprises durable skills. AAC&U research, for example, has consistently pointed to the relevance of communication, problem-solving, critical thinking and the ability to work in diverse teams. Importantly, these are the very skills represented in AAC&U’s list of Essential Learning Outcomes—a skills framework that has been widely adopted since its release in 2007 to inform college curricula, from general education to the majors, across higher education institutions. AAC&U’s most recent employer research also points to the importance of mindsets and dispositions such as work ethic, resilience and persistence, motivation and initiative as equally critical along other durable skills for equipping graduates with a full complement of abilities.

Aligning Experiences

In addition to durable skills, the ways in which those skills are applied within learning environments to prepare for workforce success represents another point of alignment between higher education and employers. Specifically, AAC&U research shows that the more colleges and universities embed high-impact practices—a set of educationally effective learning practices—to deepen and promote students’ learning, the more interest college graduates will receive on the job market. While internships are often viewed as an essential preparatory experience for workforce success, AAC&U’s research shows that a strong majority of employers value a wide range of learning experiences that allow students to apply durable skills including navigating a work-study, taking on leadership roles, developing a portfolio and working with people from diverse backgrounds.

Microcredentials as an Enabler

Even as skills and experiences create strong points of symmetry between learning and employability, there has been little real evolution in the summation of students’ achievement beyond the college transcript. However, higher education institutions’ and independent companies’ steady adoption of microcredentials has created a counter-example and energized a growing movement around the nature of credentialing to signal preparation for employment. AAC&U’s recent research report, The Career-Ready Graduate: What Employers Say about the Difference College Makes, identified that between 66 and 68% of employers state microcredentials make applicants either somewhat stronger or much stronger job candidates. Employers also see similar value in microcredentials for technical skills (68%) as those for broad, durable skills like critical thinking and oral communication (66%). Importantly for institutions of higher education, employers valued almost equally an earned microcredential focused on attaining broad, durable skills (e.g., teamwork or communication) and those focused on attaining job-specific technical skills (e.g., fluency in mathematics, a program language or data management). Thus, even as the conversation around credentialing stands to reshape connections between achievement of learning and workforce demands, there remain important points of authentic alignment in how achievement is articulated.

Meaning in Partnership

Given the preceding symmetries and opportunities, how do colleges and universities work in meaningful partnership with industry employers to link learning and career preparation? There are at least three levers to utilize to build greater alignment. First, language matters. The ways in which higher education describes learning are often remarkably similar to the ways in which employers describe durable skills. But the ways in which these outcomes or skills are labeled can suggest a mismatch. For example, while colleges and universities emphasize the need for students to develop “quantitative reasoning” or “data fluency,” employers may be looking for candidates with “the ability to work with numbers and statistics.” Higher education and employers must find common ground in how outcomes and skills are both described and labeled, and—as in any market—the demand side ultimately sets the terms.

The second lever, related to the point above, is increasing transparency for how outcomes or skills are both applied through experiences and ultimately achieved. Students often go through high-impact experiences with little understanding of the skills they’re gaining or applying, which creates a disconnect between how they talk about what they’ve done in college and the relevance of their experience for career preparation. ePortfolios, Comprehensive Learner Records (CLR) and microcredentials can serve as powerful tools to increase transparency for application and achievement in ways that bolster students’ own learning and reflection, building invaluable confidence while also being understandable to employers.  

Finally, true collaboration in higher education requires finding spaces for partnership. Collaboration does not tend to happen out of goodwill alone. It is therefore necessary for colleges and universities to find authentic points of integration for employer perspectives and feedback. For example, the Guided Pathways curriculum, which focuses significantly on career alignment, often includes an employer advisory group who works alongside faculty and staff to articulate relevant skills and building blocks toward workforce preparation. Employers can also provide valuable input on the development, execution and criteria for evaluation of college-issued, industry-recognized microcredentials. Elevating opportunities for collaboration between higher education and employers is not only good for informing the connections between learning and career success, but it also allows faculty, staff and employers to form a united front that represents to students the shared endorsement of the outcomes or skills they’re obtaining—across all majors and disciplines. A comprehensive and forward-looking institutional strategy would incorporate the adoption of digital forms of catalogs, curricula and credentials to actuate those connections and truly leverage the power of the internet to bridge the gap and improve lives.

Learn More

In an effort to create meaningful dialogue to advance the connections between higher education and industry, AAC&U and 1EdTech are partnering to offer a symposium Digital Skills: Helping to Future-Proof Learners in conjunction with the 2024 Digital Credential Summit in New Orleans March 4 to 6. The symposium will bring together global industry and higher education leaders to discuss, showcase and engage in how to more effectively link college learning and career preparation to ensure we have a workforce with the durable skills to both confront complex problems and innovate for a brighter tomorrow.

About 1EdTech: 1EdTech is a membership community committed to an open, trusted and innovative ecosystem for learning and work through a lifetime. 1EdTech is the publisher of the worldwide microcredential standard Open Badges and the Comprehensive Learner Record (CLR) Standard learning and employment records (LER’s). 

About AAC&U: The American Association of Colleges and Universities is a global membership organization dedicated to advancing the vitality and democratic purposes of undergraduate liberal education. Through its programs and events, publications and research, public advocacy and campus-based projects, AAC&U serves as a catalyst and facilitator for innovations that improve educational quality and equity and that support the success of all students.