A curriculum by academics for academics

United States tertiary institutions pursuing a teaching mission should fulfil the expectations of two primary stakeholder groups in order to sustain themselves. They are prospective and enrolled students, and employers who may subsequently hire their graduates.

Students have to be attracted to and continue to pay tuition for teaching-learning services that are said to be designed to lead to the desired degree and its subsequent benefits. Employers are the primary consumers of an institution's graduates.

Full-time employment directly related to a student's major is often considered the principal return on investment in tuition and other expenses related to pursuing a baccalaureate degree.

Under- and un-employment among recent US baccalaureate graduates, reported to be in excess of 40%, has stymied many recent graduates' seamless pursuit of the American dream upon graduation.

The Great Recession of 2008 provided a ready explanation for the delay in absorbing these graduates into the jobs they sought. Yet, as the economy continues to recover, their numbers remain relatively high.

Perceptual gap

There are undoubtedly many contributing factors to the lag in securing the desired level of employment. Recent Gallup surveys suggest that teaching institutions are failing to meet their primary stakeholders' expectations.

Inside Higher Ed reports of recent Gallup surveys suggest that there is a wide perceptual gap among academic leaders, corporate executives and the public's assessment of the work readiness of recent baccalaureate graduates.

Chief academic officers, business leaders and members of the public were surveyed to gauge their assessments of graduates' preparation for employment. The results reveal a chasm among the aggregate responses from these primary stakeholder groups.

US tertiary education respondents express clear contentment, while employers and the public are clearly dissatisfied with college graduates' preparation for work. Their vastly differing assessments do little to buoy US tertiary education credibility at home and abroad.

Professional and popular media hype have proclaimed that 96% of the 842 chief academic officer respondents gave their institutions an A+ for preparing graduates for workforce demands.

These results are not complemented by the 628 corporate leaders responding to Gallup's survey. They provide a much different assessment. Only 11% percent of the business respondents 'strongly agreed' that graduates had the requisite proficiencies for success upon entry into the workplace.

Gallup has further reported that the US public's assessment of workforce preparation appears to align with that of business executives. Of 1,012 public respondents, only 14% had high regard for the quality of workforce preparation.

The academics clearly appear out of sync with their stakeholders. Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, has noted: "It's such a shocking gap, it's just hard to even say what's going on here."

The question is why?

The ivory tower?

While these results are disappointing they are not surprising. I suggest that the answer lies with the difference between the academy and the world beyond.

The responding tertiary institutional leaders are, after all, products of an enterprise that initially provided the foundation for their subsequent entry into academic careers. Their subsequent career success as scholars, instructors and administrators could be taken as the basis for their positive assessment.

While fulfilling their degree requirements they had ongoing opportunities to observe many of the nuances and values of an academic organisational culture that they would subsequently embrace. In their view what worked for them must certainly generalise to all jobseekers with a baccalaureate degree.

Recall that academic is commonly defined as being apart from the real or practical.

Conversely, the vast majority of students are not considering an academic career and products of the academic milieu may be not so well prepared for corporate organisational culture.

This divide between employers and the academy's perceptions is not new. Corporate leaders have been voicing dissatisfaction with the academy's baccalaureate products for some time, yet the tertiary sector continues to cling on to its self-replicating curricula.

In most industries, when customers are dissatisfied with a product or service they may express their dissatisfaction by seeking an alternative.

Unfortunately, while institutions differ in size, sponsorship, location and amenities, their curricula tend to be strikingly similar. They appear to be based on what the academics believe is good for their students and not what their students need for success in the real world.

Curriculum conundrum

The ubiquitous peer accreditation system largely supported by the federal government merely sustains curricula by academics and for academics. One is reminded of Henry Ford's quote that: "Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black."

Providing employers with candidates who are job ready does not mean abandoning the academy's traditional organisational values.

While the for-profit sector is derided by public and non-profit privates for debasing tertiary education quality, they may be more in tune with the needs of the majority of students and their prospective employers.

If the system cannot make the changes needed, perhaps confident and innovative individual institutions can bridge the gap. In an increasingly competitive market, institutions producing graduates that employers readily employ should enjoy an advantage in recruiting students.

* William Patrick Leonard is vice dean at SolBridge International School of Business in Daejeon, Republic of Korea.