Jobs and the Future of Work

Why graduates lack the skill they need most

Graduating students enter the Paladin stadium before U.S. President George W. Bush watches them during the commencement ceremony at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina May 31, 2008.

Does university give graduates the skills they need? Image: REUTERS/Larry Downing

Peter Kelley
News & Information, University of Washington.
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Today’s college graduates tend to be highly trained and employable, but researchers say they often lack a key skill needed for post-college life: how to identify and ask their own questions.

Over a two-year period, researchers interviewed 1,651 people who graduated from 10 colleges and universities in the United States between 2007 and 2012. They asked the graduates about the information-seeking strategies they used and the challenges they faced transitioning to their new professional lives.

“Our study reveals some of the shortcomings of an education that is solely focused on financial rewards at graduation.”

Three-fourths said they looked for how-to tips—quick fixes they could use to solve urgent problems in their lives. And more than half said they sought information to improve their communication with older co-workers, or to keep sharp the technical skills they learned in college just a few years before.

The recent graduates use Google a lot, and get information from social media sites and even TED talks—though online courses were used less often. They also said they consulted friends and co-workers almost as much as the internet. Many had trouble staying motivated or finding the time to continue learning to stay current in the workplace.

But while three-quarters of those surveyed said they believe college had sharpened their skills at finding and evaluating information, only about one-quarter thought their college experience had taught them how to frame their own questions.

“Clearly, a wide gap exists between the life skills graduates have and the ones they still need to learn,” says Alison Head, principal research scientist at Project Information Literacy, a research group at the University of Washington.

“Most of the grads we studied scrambled to learn such essential new skills as money management, household repairs, and how to advance in their careers and communicate better on the job.”

The study also reveals the failure of higher education to prepare lifelong learners to identify and ask their own questions—perhaps the skill they most need in their post-college lives.

“As more and more college students are specializing in their majors so they are more employable, they are taking fewer courses in liberal arts, where general inquiry and problem-solving are part of the curriculum,” Head says. “Our study reveals some of the shortcomings of an education that is solely focused on financial rewards at graduation.”

A National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services funded the work.

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Jobs and the Future of WorkEducation and Skills
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