Continuing a Culture of Evidence: Expanding Skills in Higher Education

By Ross Markle

Higher education institutions (HEIs) in the United States are recognized as a beacon of innovation and intellectual capital, but rapid changes in society and technology present new challenges for colleges and universities that must produce graduates sufficiently prepared to succeed in an increasingly complex world. The landscape for HEIs and their graduates is more complicated than ever, with both parties facing more global competition, the elevated use of technology and changes in the types of industries dominating the U.S. and global economies.

College graduates need a broad set of complex skills. The traditional “content” of an academic major is at the core, but college graduates also need to possess complex skills such as critical thinking, teamwork and creativity. Indeed, many of these factors have long been assumed to be part of what a college graduate could do, but the modern climate places even greater demand on their development and demonstration.

In ETS’s new report, “Continuing a Culture of Evidence: Expanding Skills in Higher Education,” we discuss the shifts in cognitive and noncognitive skills expected of college graduates in response to these phenomena. We also outline ways for HEIs, assessment developers, researchers and policymakers to produce graduates that have the skills they need to be productive members of society.

As the skills needed to succeed in the workplace shift due to shifting demand, HEIs must also evolve. Technology has altered how some jobs are done and has impacted the skills necessary to succeed in those career paths. Higher education degrees must meet the demands of this new environment. For example, job skills required for accountants have expanded beyond computing balancing sheets and forecasting projections by hand. With technology automating these tasks, accountants have more time to critically evaluate, interpret and visualize their results. In turn, accountants must now be skilled beyond the traditional technical skills. They must be adept problem solvers, and able to interpret data, collaborate with clients in identifying the types of data to include in the reports, and coordinate projects across departments.

A joint Conference Board and Society for Human Resource Management study found that the most important skills for a college graduate to possess are oral and written communication, teamwork/collaboration, professionalism/work ethic and critical thinking/problem-solving. Despite  continuing efforts to grow and develop curricula and pedagogy within colleges and universities, employers continually report shortcomings in graduates’ possession of these skills. This leads to the perception of a “skills gap” between what HEIs are producing and what the workforce needs.

It is also worth noting that many calls for an expanded set of skills have come from within higher education. Lumina’s Degree Qualifications Profile and the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education and Americas Promise represent educationally-based efforts to articulate the expectations of college graduates. Rather than meet workforce demands, these frameworks are designed to support assessment that can improve student learning.

This improvement-focused assessment can guide institutional decisions about the best ways to support  student learning, degree completion, and workforce preparation. Using tools like the HEIghten® Outcomes Assessment Suite developed by ETS can help HEIs identify student strengths and challenges around important skills sets like critical thinking and communication. Another way HEIs can continue moving towards more active learning opportunities is increasing the use of collaborative group projects that provide hands-on experience for students in research, experimentation or problem-based learning.

We hope the suggestions provided in our report will help improve the way assessments are used to meet key institutional, student and societal needs. If all stakeholders work together to commit to developing these skills, then real changes can be made to ensure college graduates have the skills they need to be successful.