Nearly 50% of grads feel unqualified for entry-level jobs, study shows

A new Cengage survey highlights the challenges facing those who enter the workforce, particularly from two-year colleges.
By: | May 27, 2021
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Feeling unprepared for the future despite having earned two-year and four-year degrees, nearly 50% of graduates surveyed said they have not applied for certain entry-level positions in their field because they felt they were underqualified. As a result, more than 45% have failed to see a return on investment from attending college.

The recent Graduate Employability Report released by education technology company Cengage highlights the uncomfortable reality 1,600 students have faced in their searches – with 40% saying they occasionally or rarely use the skills they learned in college and 20% admitting they lack other basic skills to compete for positions.

“As more students question the value of a degree, colleges, universities and the partners that support these institutions, need to invest as much in job-ready skills, such as effective communication and people management, as they do traditional academics,” said Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage. “There is an opportunity to evolve the current systems of higher education and integrate career preparation, certification(s) and internships into course curricula.”

Most graduates polled said their degrees helped boost earning potential, but soaring student debt has put them in difficult financial positions. According to the report, 49% of graduates have had to take on a forbearance, while 26% will need more than a decade to complete payments on their student loans.

“Higher education has a huge affordability issue,” said Fernando Bleichmar, Executive Vice President and General Manager of U.S. Higher Education at Cengage. “Not only are students facing financial burdens, they’re also not finding meaningful employment to pay back their debt. For community college graduates in particular, this long stretch might be attributed to the stigmas associated with enrolling in a two-year college – placing insecurities and belittled confidence among graduates entering the workforce.

“Many two-year graduates believe their degree doesn’t compete with colleagues who have four-year degrees, leading them to feel underqualified and refrain from applying to positions.”

Some graduates also have struggled to find work quickly. One third, in fact, fail to be employed after six months.

Inside the numbers

Cengage officials said the problem isn’t only with preparation from higher education institutions, but also a group of employers that still expect incoming workers possess a bachelor’s degree. They said that often dissuades two-year degree holders or those with non-traditional education paths from applying.

“Employers need to rethink archaic hiring standards,” Hansen said. “A traditional degree path is not a reality for many Americans, and four-year degree requirements can penalize applicants who follow untraditional education paths. By prioritizing skills not just degrees, business leaders have an opportunity to remove existing barriers, helping to close labor shortages and boost our economic recovery.”

Graduates also noted a shortage of hands-on learning experiences in the survey. When asked if applied learning and networking with business leaders in college were important factors in getting hired, 66% said they were. Yet, a third of them said they never had an internship. They gave a variety of reasons: 30% said “free work” was cost-prohibitive, 25% said their institutions didn’t provide those opportunities, and the balancing of child or family care, made it impossible for 22%.

Some other notable statistics from the survey that show where students are at in their careers and their finances:

  • 47% of students have not invested in real estate or purchased a home, and 35% do not have a retirement account
  • Price was the No. 1 driver when choosing a university at 36%, followed by placement rate (33%) and prestige (20%).
  • 40% said their institutions invest in too many other areas other than academics, including the “beautification of campus and athletics”
  • 60% of those polled say colleges should help in the process of helping them get employed

Cengage leaders say colleges and universities have an obligation to improve career pathways for students and provide more substantial resources to maximize their outcomes. Since many entry-level positions require some job-related skills, it has been difficult for many graduates to show they are a good fit. So, about half are seeking further training or certifications – after they’ve already graduated – to try to become more employable. About 20% urged their peers through survey to do the same.

“There is an opportunity for both institutions and employers to ensure every student, regardless of learning path, has the opportunity to further their career and land stable, meaningful, employment,” Bleichmar said. “To start, learners need better resources and visibility of opportunities linked to their skills, interests, and education paths, and academic institutions must strengthen the bridges between higher education and employability, and equip students with career-ready skills.”