When Graduate Employability Suffers, Enrollment Shrinks

A recent study by the Wall Street Journal found that among the bottom quintile of US colleges and universities, enrollment is declining for the first time in decades—and a big part of that decline is an inability to place graduates in good jobs once they leave.

In many ways, this is to be expected. A graduate saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt needs gainful employment to pay down their loans, and if they’re unable to find a job in their field, they’re more likely to default. The return on investment for schools who can’t demonstrate their graduates employability will be viewed as lower than those that can, and enrollment will shrink, triggering what some are now calling a death-spiral.

We can see this trend taking root across the spectrum of higher education right now. Anyone who believes the damage of failing to align institutional outcomes to the current demands of the knowledge economy is engaging in wishful thinking. We see from numerous surveys that business leaders are dissatisfied with the skill levels of recent grads, and that the grads themselves lack confidence that they are adequately prepared for the world of work.

We already know that a majority of business leaders prefer foundational skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication to a candidate’s undergraduate major. We also know, unfortunately, that most colleges don’t explicitly teach foundational skills in a consistent way.

Higher education in America is at a crossroads. With a shrinking birthrate and a changing economy, colleges and universities can no longer take it for granted that enrollment numbers will float upwards every year. Reading the writing on the wall, and investing in the types of foundational skills that will not only enrich each student’s academic experience, but will also serve them well throughout their professional careers, is the only way forward.