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Survey: Hiring Managers Still Strongly Value A College Degree

By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission

It’s been an impressive, myth-shattering month for higher education.

This month, and in no particular order, The College Board released a report showing that what it actually costs to go to college is less than it’s been in a decade and is continuing to decline. Also this month, EY released a report showing that American college students are overwhelmingly happy with their choice of college.

The double-dip of actual data may surprise those who’ve been told repeatedly that college costs are spiraling out of control and that students are miserable, wallowing in regret for spending the time and money to go to college. So, though often repeated, neither is true.

Then, to top it off, the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) is out with their own survey this week showing that – surprise, surprise – employers highly value job candidates with a college education.

Like, by a wide margin.

According to the survey, 83% of employers agree with the statement, “recent college graduates are prepared to succeed in entry-level positions” in the company. Further, 80% of employers also agreed that graduates are prepared “to advance in the company.”

More broadly, the survey found that by a lopsided margin of 83% to 16%, hiring managers and company executives agreed that “I am confident that higher education is preparing graduates to succeed in the workforce.” The “strongly agree” versus the “strongly disagree” was 48% to 5%.

The results also show that 81% of employers agree with the statement, “I think getting a college degree today is worth it, despite the money and time needed to do so.” Just 18% disagreed, with only five percent in the “strongly disagree” camp. The ratio of those who strongly agreed that “a college degree today is worth it” to those who strongly disagreed was a thumping nine to one – 45 to 5.

Ashley Finley, the author of the AAC&U report and vice president for research, said the findings show that “employers value what higher education provides in terms of the broad skills, not just job-specific training, needed to keep pace with a rapidly changing workforce.”

But that’s not supposed to be the case. Based on most of what we’re reading, employers are supposed to be rejecting formal degrees when they hire, not highly valuing a college education. And certainly not by margins of nine or ten to one.

One possible reason why workforce professionals still highly value a college education is that they value the skills that students acquire in college, by getting through it, as much or more than they value the actual imparted skills and knowledge.

When employers were asked about “mindset or disposition” qualities in applicants, the top three most desired were drive/work ethic, motivation and initiative, and resilience and persistence. Those scored 81%, 79%, and 77% respectively. It’s probably not a coincidence that getting through four years of a rigorous college program takes work ethic, drive, motivation, resilience, and persistence. And employers probably know that.

Also likely related to employer support for a college education, though not nearly new information, is that the top skills employers say they want include soft or durable skills such as communication and critical and creative thinking – the skills most likely to come along with a full, quality college degree.

That employers highly value a college education is the core, headline-worthy finding from the report, though a few other points are also worth knowing.

For example, younger employers, those under 40, were more likely to see the value in a college degree than their older colleagues. On the question of whether college was worth it today given the time and money, a majority of hiring managers (51%) under 40 said they strongly agreed it was. Younger hiring authorities were also more likely to see college graduates as prepared for entry-level jobs and for company advancement.

“This younger generation of employers tends to have more confidence in higher ed and to see college graduates as being more prepared to enter and succeed in the workforce,” said Finley.

Stronger support from those most recently in college feels like an important endorsement of college and the college experience.

Also noteworthy is the relatively flat reaction of hiring managers to short-term, workplace credentials. The take-away is tricky because of the way AAC&U posed the question. They asked hiring leaders to rank four types of candidates in order – those with a college degree and a “microcredential,” those with a college degree only, those with a microcredential only, and those with neither.

Predictably, hiring leaders wanted candidates with both types of educational attainment. More than two-thirds (68%) said that, of the four choices, that was best. And why not? If some education is good, more is better.

But when asked to rank candidates with a microcredential only or a college degree only, to essentially choose between the two, hiring managers showed strong preference for the candidate with the degree over one with the microcredential. A college graduate with no other credential was ranked first or second by 60% of hiring leaders. The candidate with the microcredential and no degree was ranked first or second by 43%. Nearly half of hiring managers (49%), ranked a candidate with a microcredential only as their third choice.

In other words, hiring managers ranked job candidates in this order – both a degree and other certification first, a college degree only second, a credential only third and neither one, last. So, if you thought microcredentials or alternative credentials were on par with, or in some ways better than, a college degree, hiring managers don’t seem to agree. At least not yet.

“Employers are clearly embracing microcredentials as an important addition to the college degree, not a replacement of it,” Finley said.

Either way, it’s been a strong month for college. Students are happy with it and hiring managers strongly prefer it. And it costs less than it used to. Which all seems pretty remarkable.

Originally posted on Forbes on November 30, 2023.