Teach students soft skills

The financial relationship between students and their tertiary education institutions partially mirrors a contract. While both sides brings something to the table – tuition in exchange for instructional services with certification upon meeting all requirements – there are important differences.

The tuition paid to the institution is relatively easy to quantify in terms of the dollar value at the time of the transfer. The total cost to the student is more difficult to appraise due to two overlooked factors.

One, the actual cost to the student sharply increases when the student must borrow money to fully pay the tuition when payable. As tuition fees have and continue to increase annually, more and more students have been forced to fund at least a portion of their tertiary education with debt.

The average debt burden is reported to be around US$30,000. With interest accruing over the life of the loan, their tuition burden may become much greater than the amount received by the institution. The net present value of the amount of tuition paid plus interest charged over the life of the debt repayment most accurately reflects the student’s real tertiary education expense.

Two, the corresponding value of the instructional services provided in exchange for the tuition expense is much more difficult to estimate.

The nation’s tertiary education community has long touted the expected offsetting financial value of a baccalaureate degree. Until recent years, it has been argued that the lifetime earnings of baccalaureate graduates has been greater than their counterparts not earning a degree.

The implied message was complete the degree at any cost; the additional financial burden will be more than offset by greater lifetime earnings compared to those without degrees.

Rising debt

While the baccalaureate unquestionably produces an array of tangible and intangible benefits, the once unquestioned rationale that the degree more than pays for itself in lifetime income has begun to lose its credibility.

The average debt load has narrowed the gap between total amount paid and the probable lifetime income for many graduates unable to find suitable employment.

Full-time employment complementary to the undergraduate’s major once gave graduates an early, if incomplete, indication of the degree’s potential value. Prior to the Great Recession of 2007 the seminal role of employers in providing initial validation of the degree’s promise was unquestionably assumed. Most graduates were routinely hired.

Unfortunately, the halting recovery has not provided the jobs in the volume expected. The class of 2012’s under- and unemployed rates has been reported as edging 50% with the debt load noted above.

For graduates attempting to service large college debt with the proceeds of low-paying jobs, the promised return on their investment has become a delayed or unreachable prospect.

Recent employer surveys and studies from within the academy may partially explain why some graduates cannot secure the well-paying jobs even as the US economy haltingly recovers.

Soft skills deficit

While many graduates may have an array of technical skills, employers have been reporting for years that job seekers lack the complementary soft skills that are prerequisite to animating the hard skills developed in their tertiary studies.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers recently surveyed over 200 employers on their principal criteria in assessing candidates. Respondents clearly favoured candidates who are team players, problem solvers and can plan, organise and prioritise their work.

Comparable surveys conducted by other observers uniformly confirm employers’ aggregate desire for candidates with strong oral and written communication skills. Lack of foreign language proficiency is frequently cited.

The lack of soft skills is not limited to the United States. ManpowerGroup’s 2013 survey of over 38,000 employers in 42 countries found that worldwide 35% of employers had difficulty filling positions.

Its survey found that 39% of US employers could not recruit candidates with the prerequisite skills. Its deficit list also includes lack of motivation, interpersonal skills, appearance, punctuality and flexibility.

Complementary studies from within the academy have also reported declines in soft skills among graduate in recent decades.

The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy study documented a 10-year decline in college graduate soft skills. More recent titles – Academically Adrift and Declining by Degrees and others from within the academy – also note soft skill deficits.

Institutions must respond

The soft skill deficit has been discussed for over two decades yet institutions have not responded.

The lack of the desired soft skills is only one of an array of factors contributing to high under- and unemployment among recent graduates. It is, however, one that is within the power of institutions to act on in the short term.

Institutions empowering their graduates with soft skills should give them an advantage in the competitive job market.

In response, a marketing advantage should accrue to the institutions as prospective students learn of their graduates’ success in securing full-time employment in their field and a salary within expectations.

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


Short of guaranteed high salaries, nothing is worth the price of the debt, especially the debt those from financially disadvantaged backgrounds accrue.

Christopher Weir on the University World News Facebook page