It’s almost back-to-school time—or possibly the time you’re starting your college search. Given the skyrocketing costs of a college education, some parents and students wonder if higher education is really worth the investment. According to employers, it is.  But the specific courses a student decides to take in college seem to be less important to potential employers than the more generalized skills acquired during the four years of advanced education.

The Association of American Colleges & Universities recently conducted a study that highlighted the five attributes that employers look for in newly minted graduates:*

  • Possesses innovation. This is a bit tricky as sometimes “innovation” is more of a buzzword than it is a skill. However, 95 percent of employers say they give hiring preferences to college graduates with capabilities that enable them to contribute to innovation in the workplace. It’s up to the job candidate to figure out how to add innovation to a project, department, or company. Researching online and conducting informational interviews can provide insight into what innovation means to a specific organization.

  • Has critical thinking, communication, and problem solving skills. It doesn’t really matter if a student majored in French or literature, or excelled in math or science. According to the study, 93 percent of employers said that a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than a job candidate’s undergraduate major.

  • Has a broad learning background. Also, 80 percent of employers think that regardless of major, broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences is essential. To employers, this shows the broad-based perspective and integrative thinking skills they are seeking for a variety of positions.

  • Has an e-portfolio. In the study, 83 percent of employers said an electronic portfolio goes a long way in exhibiting a job candidate’s talents. For college students, this means that posting their research papers, writing a blog or sharing videos can be an effective way to display their communication skills and technological proficiency.

  • Has real-life experience. Work study, internships, and community service all showcase an ability to add value, prioritize commitments, and work within a team. While classroom learning is beneficial, it can also be passive.  Eighty-six percent of employers agree that active hands-on learning gives students an opportunity to apply critical thinking, develop team skills and ethical judgment, and further hone their education.

When a student decides to pursue higher education, it’s more important to focus on knowledge and skills than a specific field of study. Employers want college grads who can be flexible and adapt quickly to changing demands. The ability to think creatively, solve complex problems, communicate clearly, manage multiple priorities, and work as a member of a team will help students to thrive in a 21st century environment and be successful in their life and careers.

As you consider your financial plan for the future, don’t overlook the need to set yourself up for success. 

*Association of American Colleges and Universities and Hart Research Associates, It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (2013).

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