Washington and Lee University has joined the LEAP Employer-Educator Compact, which unites colleges and universities with employers to provide students with more hands-on opportunities to connect their campus learning with real-world contexts and problems.
Washington and Lee President Kenneth P. Ruscio recently signed the compact, which was developed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and by employers working with AAC&U. W&L is a long-standing member of the national organization of colleges and universities.
Announcement of the compact came at the same time AAC&U released results of a survey that concluded that a job candidate's major is far less important to prospective employers than the ability to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems —skills emphasized by liberal arts colleges like W&L.
Ruscio, who is vice chair of AAC&U and also belongs to a special presidential leadership group within AAC&U, the LEAP Presidents’ Trust, was featured on a panel at the compact forum in Washington on Wednesday, when AAC&U introduced the initiative and released results of its national survey of business and non-profit leaders, "It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success."
At the same time, four Washington and Lee alumni are among more than 150 signatories from the business and non-profit segments who have pledged their commitment to make high-quality college learning a shared priority. The W&L alumni participating in the compact are Christopher Williams, Class of 1985, managing director of Harris Williams & Co.; James R. Small, Class of 1981, president of Icon Petroleum; Martin E. (Hap) Stein Jr., Class of 1974, chairman and chief executive officer of Regency Centers; and Craig Owens, Class of 1976, senior vice president, chief financial officer and chief administrative officer of The Campbell Soup Company.
In his remarks at the forum, Ruscio cited three Washington and Lee programs — the Shepherd Poverty Program, the Roger Mudd Center for Ethics, and the Entrepreneurship Program — as representative of the types of innovative initiatives that help students make the important connections between their college learning and real-world problems.
"Through these programs, students have to get outside the classroom experience to talk the language of business or of the non-profit world," he said. "Today's college students, at Washington and Lee and elsewhere, need these kinds of opportunities to begin to understand what business means when it talks about the need for workers who can practice 'integrative thinking.'
"As I think about these issues, I think it's not just a matter of what we teach, but how we teach and how we begin to adjust in certain ways given the differences in today's students."
The newly-released AAC&U report revealed that, after reading a definition of liberal learning, three-quarters of business and non-profit leaders would recommend a 21st-century liberal education to a young person they know in order to prepare for long-term professional success in today's global economy.
Other key findings:
- Nearly all employers surveyed (93 percent) said that "a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate's] undergraduate major."
- Even more (95 percent) said they prioritize hiring college graduates with skills that will help them contribute to innovation in the workplace.
- About 95 percent of those surveyed also said it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills and the capacity for continued new learning.
- More than 75 percent of those surveyed said they want more emphasis on five key areas: critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.
- 80 percent of employers agreed that, regardless of their major, every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences.
Responding to the survey's results and his participation in the compact, W&L alumnus Williams, whose Richmond-based company is a middle-market investment bank, cited his experience in hiring graduates with a variety of majors.
"While we certainly like to see some finance and accounting backgrounds, we have found it is far more important to possess the other values that cannot be defined by a 'major'," he said. "In our firm, which is probably as intense an environment for college grads as I can imagine, being able to get up to a learning curve quickly, work ethic, writing skills, teamwork, etc., are all skills that are incredibly important for their long-term success."
Stein, whose company is based in Jacksonville, Fla., said that he supports the Employer-Educator Compact "because during my 37 years in business the critical importance of written and oral communication and sound judgment based upon a broad view of the world has been demonstrated time and again. One of the tried and true means for businessmen to develop communication skills and a comprehensive appreciation for the world in which we live is through a liberal arts education."
All the individuals signing the LEAP Employer-Educator Compact have committed to:
- Helping Americans understand the rising demands of a global workplace and the need for every student to acquire liberal education outcomes
- Ensuring that all college students have access to experiences that help them develop the broad knowledge and intellectual skills needed for success
- Expanding and supporting new designs for hands-on learning, including such things as senior projects, undergraduate research and internship
- Advancing the dual mission for American higher education to prepare students both for successful careers and for civic responsibility
- Documenting progress in helping all students achieve key learning outcomes, including their ability to apply learning to complex problems.
The compact forum featured Martha Kanter, U.S. Under Secretary for Education, along with leaders of industry and higher education.
"Too many students believe that the key to economic success is completion of a major whose title seems to promise a job," said AAC&U president Carol Geary Schneider. "What the compact and the research on employer priorities show is that, whatever the choice of major, employers say that career success will require broad liberal learning, strong 21st-century skills and real-world experience and savvy. We want to make sure that students and their families hear this message from employers themselves."
AAC&U is the leading national association concerned with the quality, vitality and public standing of undergraduate liberal education. Its members are committed to extending the advantages of a liberal education to all students, regardless of academic specialization or intended career. Founded in 1915, AAC&U now comprises nearly 1,300 member institutions, including accredited public and private colleges, community colleges, research universities and comprehensive universities of every type and size.
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs