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AACU’s 2018 Employer Research Report/Communicating the Value of Study Abroad___

---The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), a self-described “voice and force for liberal education in the 21st Century,” has published six reports since 2007 examining the trends connecting liberal arts learning outcomes and employment in the global economy. The reports, which can be found here, contain a trove of empirical data that not only demonstrate the value that liberal education graduates take to the workforce, but also how employers view and conceptualize the mission of higher education. As the data from these reports often show, employers highly covet graduates who have mastered the skills and dispositions, and gained the experiences, that are strongly associated with liberal arts education.

On August 28th, I participated in AAC&U’s webinar on their 2018 employer survey, Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work, which was published in July. The report is generally very optimistic about the perceptions of liberal arts learning outcomes in the eyes of business executives and hiring managers. One of the key points brought out in the report is that a large number of employers believe recent graduates need to improve the knowledge and skills necessary for advancement within their careers, an area of learning for which a liberal arts education is well-suited.

At the same time, the results of the research make clear that institutions, and by extension their students, need to do a better job of communicating the outcomes associated with liberal arts education. What struck me most from the survey summary that was provided during the webinar was part of the response to the survey question would employers “be MUCH more likely to hire a recent grad with this experience.” From the list of seven different experiences, taking part in a study abroad program scored the lowest, with only 18% of business executives and 16% of hiring managers rating this as “much more likely” to influence their decision to hire recent college graduates. This response should be somewhat troubling for those of us working to promote liberal arts education in global contexts where the study abroad element is often the raison d’etre for the new context in the first place, or else intricately connected to it.

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During the webinar, I was glad when C. Edward Watson, AAC&U’s Chief Information Officer and Associate Vice President for Quality, Advocacy, and LEAP Initiatives, took a question from me on how the panelists interpreted this particular finding about the student study abroad experience. The gist of the two responses from the panelists is that universities need to do a better job of helping employers understand the educational import of study abroad experiences and assisting students in conveying what they have gained from such experiences in a way that will highlight how this enhances what they will do in the workplace. 

Since the full responses of the two panelists who responded to my query contain many good observations and ideas, I am providing them in full here: 

Lenore P. Rodicio, Executive Vice President and Provost, Miami Dade College 

“I think it could be a factor of not doing a good enough job on our end of demonstrating how study abroad helps to demonstrate some of these skills. I think if you look at many study abroad programs, the artifacts that are created at the end of that in terms of the student learning that occurred and how that applied knowledge is transmitted are probably lacking at best. So I think we could probably do a better job at communicating the results of these study abroad experiences. One of the programs that we’ve been focused on heavily is in trying to offer study abroad experiences to non-traditional students, and we have one particular program together with Educate Tomorrow where we have been funding study abroad for students who are homeless and that has shown a huge positive benefit in terms of reengaging them with the education system as well as helping them to demonstrate that they can apply their learning in a different cultural setting. And I think if we provide more of those opportunities, particularly to non-traditional students, and help them then in reiterating then when they come back, how these opportunities have changed their perspective or have allowed them to apply their learning in a different way, we’ll be a step closer to changing that. So, I think that what we see is that it’s not so much that the cultural perspective is not valued. I think we may not be communicating well the value of study abroad to potential employers.” 

Ronald A. Crutcher, President, University of Richmond 

“I agree whole-heartedly with Lenore. As I read that or when I looked at that I would venture to say that perhaps the employers and hiring managers looking at study abroad think, “Oh, they’re just going over there to travel.” So, I think it’s incumbent upon us to focus on what the learning outcomes are, what are the qualities that students have received or have embedded in them once they have participated in the study abroad program. And then, of course, many of these programs involve work. Many study abroad programs are also work programs in the sense that students will have an opportunity to intern or work in a company in a foreign country. And the outcomes that they derive from that kind of experience I think can be critically important and beneficial. We need to do a better job of explaining that and talking more about what those outcomes are.” 

Here are some additional highlights from the 2018 survey: 

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What are your thoughts on the issue of communicating the value of the study abroad experience? Generally, what is your response to other items of data in the survey? I appreciate comments to this post (and all posts on the site).