General Education Curricula in the Research University: A Case Study Examination of Employability as a Formational Influence

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Boyd, Travis, Higher Education - School of Education and Human Development, University of Virginia
Pusser, Brian, University of Virginia

The skills gap is a relatively widely accepted claim among employers in virtually all job sectors which states that new college graduates are frequently deficient in skills that are expected to be present for success in entry-level work (Archer & Davison, 2008; Cunningham & Villasenor, 2016; Finch et al., 2013; Hart Research Associates, 2013; Robles, 2012). Within this, employers contend that the skills most essential for new professionals to possess are universal and broad-based in nature as opposed to being relegated to subject-specific knowledge pertaining directly to the industries they represent (Cunningham & Villasenor, 2016; Finch et al., 2013; Hart Research Associates, 2013; Robles, 2012). It was viewed that the examination herein should focus upon the efforts incurred by the upper echelon of higher education towards meeting these labor market needs. A case study approach was implemented to examine the differential approaches taken in multiple academic departments within a single highly selective research university in gearing curriculum towards the desires of the workforce at large. Specific attention was paid to the general education aspects of the programs under the belief that the skills in greatest demand are non-discipline specific and should therefore be programmed into the one area of the undergraduate degree that is relatively common to all programs. Eighteen semi-structured interviews were conducted with faculty and staff spread across six different undergraduate schools, with each possessing active roles related to curricular planning and revision. The interviews sought to explore questions related to the curricular structure and efforts made within it associated with skills development to meet workforce demands in order to better understand the different influences that impact curricular formation. Within this inquiry, five major themes emerged: (1) Graduates are perceived to have a high level of preparedness for entry-level employment, (2) there are varying understandings of and perceived purposes of general education, (3) articulating employability skills to students through the curriculum and instruction can be a significant tool in helping students connect classroom learning to employment, (4) there were many differences in faculty perceptions of what skills were most important for students to master for employment, varying by school and major of enrollment, and (5) there are a wide variety of strong influences on the development of curriculum that can prepare students for the labor market. Recommendations towards enhancing the cohesiveness of general education within the degree, building alignment between the individuals crafting curriculum and those instructing it, and embracing programming efforts that support greater workforce preparation within the undergraduate curriculum are all offered. Furthermore, the applicability of the skills gap narrative to elite universities and the approaches they take towards building employability are also discussed.

EDD (Doctor of Education)
General Education, Employability, Labor market, Skills, Skills gap, Research university
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