Many Workers Question College Education Applicability to Work

One-third of surveyed college-educated workers think that what they learned applies to their jobs

By SHRM Online staff Aug 7, 2013

The value of a college education may be under close scrutiny these days, but the need for post-secondary education is not. Results from a recent University of Phoenix survey reveal that only a quarter of working adults believe that college education effectively prepares students for employment. Yet, despite the low confidence level, nearly half of respondents regretted not attaining more education, according to findings released Aug. 2, 2013.

The online survey of more than 1,600 U.S. working adults was conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the university in April. Only 10 percent of respondents said they think that college “very effectively” prepares students for the world of work, while 22 percent believe that a college education does not effectively prepare students for employment.

When college-educated respondents were asked whether what they learned in college can be applied in their current jobs, 51 percent said some of what they learned is relevant. But only 35 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher consider all or most of what they learned applicable. What’s more, 13 percent said that none of what they learned is relevant. A mere 7 percent believe that all of what they learned in college applies in their workplace.

“The survey suggests the need for higher education to adapt to the needs of the market and prepare students for specific jobs and careers,” observed Sam Sanders, Ph.D., chair of the University of Phoenix’s School of Business and a former human resources executive, in a media statement. “There is significant progress being made in America to tie curriculum to careers earlier in a student’s education, but there is still a lot of work to be done to prepare college graduates for specific careers and grow a more competitive workforce.”

Those with graduate degrees were more likely to make the education-career connection, with nearly half (47 percent) saying that all or most of what they learned applies to their current job. Fifty-eight percent of respondents without bachelor’s degrees said they regret not pursuing more education, while 32 percent of those with such degrees regret not attaining an advanced degree.

Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of all respondents have regrets about their education, including:

  • Not learning as much because they didn’t apply themselves or focus enough on academics (21 percent and 19 percent, respectively).
  • Selecting the wrong major (15 percent).
  • Not pursuing internships or relevant part-/full-time jobs while receiving their education (11 percent).
  • Not applying the information learned to real-life scenarios (6 percent).

Online Learning

Many adults are augmenting their education through online learning, according to the survey results, and this may be one of the ways education is more closely following the workplace.

One-third (33 percent) of respondents are pursuing online education or are aware of someone who is. Eighty-seven percent of respondents said there are benefits to online learning, with the top benefits identified being the ability to go to school while working full-time or part-time (78 percent) and the ability to learn from anywhere in the world (63 percent).

Sixteen percent of respondents also said online education provides participants with the ability to learn in an environment that mirrors the workplace, which, in many cases, relies more on online communication.

But before an individual goes back to school online or elsewhere, Sanders advises them to do the following:

  • Research career options before entering a degree program. Students who start their education programs with their careers in mind often get more out of the experiences and can translate their classwork into actionable items in the workplace.
  • Understand and leverage available resources. The learning experience becomes more customized each day, and students have an array of resources available—including smartphones and online tutoring tools and textbooks—to help them understand and apply content.
  • Gain buy-in of key stakeholders. Prospective students should discuss education with family, friends, co-workers and bosses, who can support and help them stay motivated. Employees can also discuss ways that they can bring classroom learning into the workplace to benefit all team members and specific projects.

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