Shaping College Curriculum for Student Workforce Success – AAC&U Report:

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 107 with Guest Dr. Ashley Finley

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Shaping College Curriculum for Student Workforce Success - AAC&U Report - Changing Higher Ed Podcast - The Change Leader

The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has issued its new report that will have an impact on shaping college curriculum for student workforce success. The report, “On the Same Page? Administrator and Faculty Views on What Shapes College Learning and Student Success”, focuses on the needed outcomes that shape undergraduate education and the practices guiding faculty and other stakeholders in the work they’re doing on campuses to support student learning and success.

Some of the questions we’ll answer are:

  • How do colleges and universities define and articulate learning outcomes, provide access to engaging learning experiences, and assess student success?
  • What defines a credential’s value for students to achieve professional and personal success?
  • What practices of accountability for assessment, improvement, and equity are campuses undertaking to ensure all students graduate with similar levels of value?


The most predominant and obvious variable of society is changing. Over the last century, change happened at an increased pace. New technologies, products, and businesses emerged. Things move fast, and people need to adapt to their new surroundings. While it seems that all socioeconomic aspects of society should adapt at the same rate, reality shows that things are not adapting in a linear fashion. 

There is a saying regarding higher education curriculums, “Higher education institutions teach for jobs people did 100 years ago.” Although this may be exaggerated, there is definitely a bit of truth in this statement.

For example, we often hear students and employers talking about the gaps between what higher education teaches and what the current market requires in terms of skills and knowledge. Considering the modern learning resources available and the fact companies are increasingly focused on teaching employees new skills in-house, higher education might become irrelevant should it not change how and what it teaches.

To offer a broader perspective on the issue, Dr. Ashley Finley, Vice President of Research and Senior Advisor to the President of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), joined us on the podcast to discuss the recent report and its implications for higher education curricula.

Modernizing the Higher Ed Curriculum

AAC&U’s first report, “How College Contributes to Workforce Success: Employer Views on What Matters Most” was released in 2021. We discussed the report with Dr. Finely on our podcast, “Transforming Curriculum and Higher Ed’s Role in Workforce Success,” last year after the report was published. 

The survey shows that there were five top takeaways that employers wanted for graduates: the ability to work in teams, critical thinking, the ability to analyze and interpret data, application of knowledge and real-world settings, and digital literacy.

There’s a difference between what faculty are teaching and what employers feel are the most valuable skills they need. Though they agree on communication skills, critical thinking, and creative thinking, a great difference is how employers value teamwork and how rarely that appears within campus priorities. There’s also a gap between applications in the real world and digital literacy.

Dr. Finley, the author and principal investigator of both reports, stated:

“Some of what campuses report consistently within their identified learning outcomes are the same as those for employers. They’re similar in terms of communication skills, critical thinking skills, [and even lower importance skills] like creative thinking. However, a big difference is a way in which employers value teamwork, and how rarely this appears within campus priorities, even though there’s a strong belief in collaboration and group projects.”

One of the things that could be putting roadblocks in the way of modernizing the higher ed curriculum is accreditation and shared governance – most faculty do not take into account what employers want (and need) from graduates. The major cause may be in the way in which faculty have been trained to prioritize what they believe an educated person should know. In the faculty’s view, an educated person requires a depth of knowledge in a field and can be related to the particular faculty research, which may or may not align with what businesses need in graduates.

A critical point to understand is how colleges and universities have been shaping the public good is certainly about economic vitality and making sure that the workforce is trained in a way that will contribute to the overall financial impact of the community, the nation, and the world. However, the debates about the contribution to the civil element are still ongoing, and there is no specific answer around it.

This brings us to the second and most recent report.

Aligning Student Learning and Workforce Needs

AAC&U’s new report, “On the Same Page? Administrator and Faculty Views on What Shapes College Learning and Student Success,” examines how learning outcomes are understood, articulated, and compared to workforce priorities. The first portion of the report focuses on student learning outcomes, and how learning is articulated and aligns with workforce needs; the second highlights the nuances of curricular design from general education to the majors, including the prevalence of high-impact practices across both the curriculum and the co-curriculum; and the final section examines assessment practices and utilization of direct assessment, specifically about measuring students’ demonstrated learning using rubrics.

Focusing on Outcomes for Student Workforce Success

Focusing on the proper student learning outcomes and ensuring they are properly measured is becoming more and more important in higher education. However, there is a large perception gap between the percentage of campus stakeholders who reported having a common set of intended learning outcomes (83%) and stakeholders’ belief that “almost all” or a “majority” of students understand those outcomes (28%).

According to Dr. Finley, one explanation for this gap is, “For the 2008 and 2015 AAC&U reports, we tapped one person to speak for campuses on their institutional practices — the Chief Academic Officer. For this most recent study, we wanted to diversify and learn how different stakeholders perceive what’s going on — faculty, deans, directors, and senior administrators being the three big groups. I believe we’re seeing a big gap because we included bigger points of perceived knowledge about what’s going on.”

However, this does not fully explain the issue. Not only was there a gap between having an understanding SLOs, but there were also, not surprisingly, large gaps between faculty and senior administrators’ perceptions throughout the report. Dr. Finley stated, “We found a big difference between not only the ‘perceived difference between senior administrators and faculty and how they report out,’ but also ‘the levels of uncertainty among faculty.’ On most questions, we had an unsure category that respondents could check — a relatively and significantly higher percentage of faculty checked that box versus deans and directors, and senior administrators.

There were three greater levels of uncertainty for faculty in these areas:

1) whether equity goals had been defined for the achievement of learning outcomes

2) certain assessment practices

3) the degree to which rubrics were being used on campus

From Finley’s perspective, “This is a bigger statement around communication of campus priorities — making sure faculty have the space and the audience to talk through some of these campus priorities. It’s an endorsement for greater levels of communication.”

Exploring Mindset Education to Improve Workforce Success

The survey explored, for the first time, mindsets, which involve growth mindset, self-awareness, thriving, flourishing, belonging, self-confidence, and others – in other words, aptitudes. When talking about it to stakeholders, there’s a recognition of how powerful these capacities are in supporting and emboldening the learning process, increasing student success, and having major implications for equity.

For example, in a conversation that Dr. Finley had with an industry leader, she related the following: “In her role, she works with companies of all sizes and different sectors on strategic planning. She referred to job skills — very specific things you need to do to complete a task in a job — as the next layer of enabling skills. For this leader, you need critical thinking and problem-solving to do your job; only things don’t go the same way every day, so you need to be able to adapt. That next layer — the invisible, internal layer — what we’re calling mindsets, aptitudes, dispositions, she referred to as aptitudes. But it was her descriptor that was important — for her; these are the things that help you move up. In the research this leader had done, people can be high and low on different components of all of these. But when they’re high on these aptitudes, that’s what leads to promotions.”

The report showed a subtle difference between the campus and employers’ top mindsets. The top mindsets for employers are work ethic, the ability to take the initiative, and self-confidence. While for the campus, these are also the ability to take the initiative, persistence, curiosity, and the capacity for lifelong learning.

Despite broad consensus on the importance of mindsets, aptitudes, and dispositions across all groups of stakeholders, most (and especially faculty) regard the intentional development of these outcomes to be within the purview of student affairs rather than as part of the curriculum. By contrast, stakeholders reported that the curriculum, either within general education or the majors, is where students’ development of curiosity or capacity for lifelong learning is most likely to occur.

Higher education should support students and their perspectives on freedom of expression on campus. And it needs to treat seriously, moving mindsets into the formal curriculum. It all comes down to taking what is best for students and for institutions and beginning to translate it into practice. 

How Higher Ed Curriculum Design and High-Impact Practices Are Shaping General Education and the Majors

General education programs have long been a source of curricular derision for campuses. Many students view these courses as disconnected from their personal journeys rather than foundational for their future success. So campuses have increasingly moved from a distribution model explicitly focused on content areas to more innovative and outcomes-based models.

Though research has demonstrated the utility of open educational resources in supporting equity among socioeconomically disadvantaged students, these resources remain underutilized on campuses. 

Most respondents expressed support for students to engage in global learning and community-based experiences, whether locally or outside of the country. Though global learning can happen locally or abroad, respondents assigned the greatest levels of importance to community-based experiences that occur locally. Over 1/2 of respondents indicated that 25% of students or fewer participated in global learning experiences as part of the curriculum.

Accountability: How Commitments to Equity and Assessments Are Being Utilized on Campuses

Though campus stakeholders reported high levels of data disaggregation by race/ethnicity, sex, first-generation status, and transfer status for retention and graduation rates, fewer than half of respondents reported disaggregating by socioeconomic status. 

The most significant finding is that, when it comes to awareness of equity goals, there is a gulf between faculty, deans, and directors, on the one hand, and senior administrators, on the other, with faculty reporting the highest levels of unawareness. On average, fewer than 1 out of 5 stakeholders reported their campuses set equity goals for any of the 7 success metrics provided.

Four Takeaways for University Presidents and Boards 

  • Increase Transparency for All Stakeholders. A consistent finding of this report is a difference in perceptions between senior administrators and other campus stakeholder groups, primarily faculty. Make it a priority to increase transparency around what is happening to advance student learning and why.
  • Establish Equity Goals. Commitments to equity go beyond disaggregating data. When guided by established equity goals, stakeholders can more effectively interrogate analytics through dialogue, evaluation, and strategies for improvement. This report also shows the importance of extending equity goals to increase inclusion within professional development opportunities, particularly for STEM faculty.
  • Elevate the Importance of Civic Skills and Global Learning. Think about how direct assessment is getting into assessment practices and how campuses are balancing the Dunning-Kruger effect between what students think they can do with their actual demonstrated learning. 
  • Move Mindsets into the Curriculum. There is strong consensus, even among employers, that the development of students’ mindsets, aptitudes, and dispositions is essential for their success. Building bridges between the curriculum and co-curriculum in support of these outcomes would enable students to flourish throughout their college journeys and their careers. It would also create important connecting points between students’ experiences inside and outside the classroom.


About the Host

Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a Higher Education Consultant and CEO of The Change Leader, Inc.

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