“Alignment” as the Next Higher Education Frontier, with John Lawlor of The Lawlor Group

headshot_lawlorShared with permission from John Lawlor:

Access. Affordability. Completion rates. Successful outcomes. Each of these has been a standard in measuring how well a college is fulfilling its mission and providing a worthwhile return on investment. And according to two higher education researchers who spoke at our “Lunch with Lawlor” event (#lwlchicago) last weekend in Chicago prior to the College Board’s Midwest Regional Forum, another goal should and perhaps will take hold in the near future: alignment between student learning and job-relevant competencies.

John Pryor is former director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) and now the newly appointed senior research scientist for Gallup Education charged with implementing the Gallup-Purdue Index, which seeks to measure how college graduates perceive the effects of their education on their careers and their quality of life. Pryor reviewed CIRP findings that indicate even though 88 percent of first-year students said a very important reason they decided to attend college was “to be able to get a better job,” only 34 percent of college seniors reported being very satisfied with the relevance of their coursework to their future career plans. He also compared results from CIRP’s faculty survey with a survey of hiring executives sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. They indicate college professors do indeed prioritize, as learning goals for their students, the same skills and abilities that employers wish they would emphasize. Yet still, only 56 percent of employers are satisfied with how well colleges and universities are preparing their graduates for the workplace.

These findings led Pryor to posit that perhaps there’s a mismatch between what faculty mean by these learning goals and what employers mean. He argued that getting faculty and industry to partner on such issues is key to improving students’ preparedness for their careers and lives ahead—and at the same time, a way for colleges and universities to solve the problem of how best to demonstrate their value. 

Phil Gardner, director of the College Employment Research Institute (CERI) at Michigan State University, presented employment data to reinforce why college graduates need a competitive advantage in a post-recession marketplace that is taking much longer to recover jobs than after previous recessions. He also showed that while the nature of today’s work has changed, job-recruiting practices are still stuck in the past. Gardner argued that what’s required is a new model for professional expertise—one centered on technical competence, taking initiative, and cognitive abilities. And while a “liberal arts” education (Gardner noted that the term “arts and sciences” actually goes over better with employers) can certainly develop these boundary-crossing competencies, liberal arts graduates often have trouble crafting, and therefore translating, their individual stories for a non-academic audience.

Gardner argued that because the only college experiences that really count to employers are those that are almost precisely relevant to what the employers do, graduates must unpack their academic experiences and learn to convey them in terms that matter to the employers in order to show what they’ll bring to the table. So what really needs to happen, said Gardner, is for faculty to teach students to talk about what they’ve done in ways that help employers understand the relevance. At the very least, that language is what must be in alignment.


John Lawlor’s rich background in brand management gives him a valued perspective in the field of education marketing. With nearly 30 years of marketing experience, he understands how research and the right strategies can accurately position an educational institution among competing schools.


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