Father William Byron, S.J.

In mid-January, The Wall Street Journal reported that four in 10 U.S. college students graduate with insufficient skills in complex reasoning to manage white-collar work. They are weak in oral communication, written communication, critical thinking and creativity.

That is a serious indictment. Liberal arts educators will claim that they have the solution. The challenge for them is to convince students and parents, as well as administrators and faculty on their own campuses, that philosophy, literature and the humanities have practical relevance to the postgraduation world of work and should therefore be included in the collegiate experience.

Nearly 32,000 students at 169 colleges and universities were tested by the Council for Aid to Education in 2013 and 2014 to generate the data that The Wall Street Journal used to point to the problem.

At the same time, the Association of American Colleges and Universities asked students and employers similar questions about career preparation. The students thought they were being adequately prepared, but the employers sharply disagreed. In a January 2015 report, the association states:

“When it comes to the types of skills and knowledge that employers feel are most important to workplace success, large majorities of employers do NOT feel that recent college graduates are well prepared. This is particularly the case for applying knowledge and skills in real-world settings, critical thinking skills, and written and oral communication skills — areas in which fewer than three in 10 employers think that recent college graduates are well prepared. Yet even in the areas of ethical decision-making and working with others in teams, many employers do not give graduates high marks.”

All of this amounts to a midwinter wake-up call on colleges campuses. The voice of employers deserves to be heard. Faculty who teach critical thinking need to assert themselves. Anyone dealing with students on either side of the campus street (academic affairs or student life) has to insist on improved oral and written communication, reasoned argument, rejection of fallacies and creative solutions to real or hypothetical problems.

The mirror has to be held up to students so that they can see how they come across when they express themselves. As a longtime friend of mine never tired of telling her children and grandchildren, “You will never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

The data these studies have produced suggest that employers are not happy with the first impressions recent college graduates are presenting when they show up for work.

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Jesuit Father Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: wbyron@sju.edu.