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Solving the vast disconnect between schools and employers

While 96 percent of chief academic officers believe graduates are prepared for the workforce, only 11 percent of business leaders agree. Here's how Delaware Valley University is approaching the disconnect.

Into the great wide open. (Photo by Flickr user Aaron Hawkins, used under a Creative Commons license)

This story is part of Grow PA, a reported series on economic development across 10 Pennsylvania counties underwritten by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. Sign up for our weekly curated email here.

This is a guest post by Benjamin Rusiloski, Delaware Valley University's Vice President for Academic Affairs.
There is a striking disconnect between colleges and universities and employers.

A 2014 Gallup-Lumina Foundation study found that while 96 percent of chief academic officers of colleges and universities believe that their institutions are “very or somewhat effective” at preparing students for the workforce, only 11 percent of business leaders “strongly agree.”

Colleges and universities can’t afford to be out of touch with the needs of employers. We’re tasked with trying to find out what employers want and making sure our graduates can deliver. Tuition is an investment and parents and students want to see a return on that investment.

Now, more than ever, college and university administrators need to talk with employers.

To find out what employers want, ask them. We did that at Delaware Valley University, and we’re seeing those conversations pay off.

DelVal used to require students to complete 500 hours of work experience to graduate. The assumption was that a degree and work experience should be enough to prepare graduates. We were tasked with evaluating that requirement.

Our first step in doing this was reaching out to employers to talk with them about our program. We started asking questions:

  • What skills were recent graduates missing?
  • What was preventing them from “hitting the ground running” when they entered their first positions?
  • How could we do better?

These conversations made us realize we were out of touch with employers’ wants and needs. So, we partnered with employers to change our graduation requirements. Now, instead of 500 work experience hours, we offer the Experience360 Program. The Experience360 Program has become a leading example of a program that aligns with the demands of the workforce. We believe it is so effective because employers had a hand in crafting it.

The Class of 2016 was the first class to graduate from this new program.

We’re proud to say that our first class to graduate from the Experience360 Program had a 90.7 percent job outcomes rate within a year of graduation. This is a 3 percent increase over the previous year.

What makes Experience360 work

The Experience 360 Program produces well-rounded professionals by getting students engaged from day one. We start preparing students to think about their career paths from their first day of class.

All students take two Experience360 courses, which work on soft skills. During their first year, students participate in a professional development course in which they create an action plan to reach their career goals. They also learn basics such as how to network, write a resume and look for internships in these courses.

This preparation is paying off when they go into internships. When surveyed about our Class of 2016 E360 students, 93 percent of employers rated their workplace attributes as outstanding or very good. Students are entering these experiences with a clear understanding of how their participation will help them achieve their goals. They start their E360 activities with a strong work ethic and desire to learn that employers are noticing.

In our Class of 2016 employer survey, 93 percent of employers rated students’ responsibility, professionalism and productivity as “outstanding” or “very good.”

In addition to these specialized courses, students complete a program with requirements tailored to their majors. What works for one field might not be what works for another, so we customize our experiential learning requirements by program. DelVal is one of the few schools in the nation that has a customized experiential learning program for each major.

DelVal’s program is designed to encourage learning both inside and outside of the classroom. We found that being a student leader on campus could be just as valuable for job preparation as being in class. Students are able to choose from a menu of activities that range from study abroad to leadership development. For all of the activities, they are asked to reflect on the experience during the process and seek feedback. They set goals for the skills they would like to gain or the areas they would like to improve on and check in to see how they are doing on meeting those goals.

Our transcripts show both classes and experiential learning activities. To DelVal, learning outside of the classroom is just as valuable. So, it made sense to show those experiences on our transcripts.

By encouraging students to set goals, participate in activities outside of the classroom and reflect on those activities, we’re helping students develop a variety of skills beyond their major requirements. This program is producing well-rounded graduates who are prepared to succeed in the workforce.

In Delaware Valley University's Class of 2016 employer survey, 93 percent of employers rated students’ responsibility, professionalism and productivity as outstanding or very good.

Part of the strategy of creating this program was building continuous communication with employers into the process. This helps us stay relevant and make adjustments as needed. Mid-semester each term, our Center for Student Professional Development reaches out to employers to check on students’ progress, inviting informal feedback. This often results in phone or email communication between employers and the Center. Employers are also surveyed each semester for feedback on the program as a whole and the individual student’s performance.

I would encourage other administrators to call employers and ask how your graduates are doing. It might be hard to hear, but listen. Then, take that feedback and use it. The process will be better for students and for the employers if you do.

So, what are we hearing from employers now that we’re actively engaging them in the process? Here’s one example:

“Your students come into an internship with a desire to learn and then work hard to achieve their goals,” said Maureen Ruhe at the Wildlands Conservancy. “I’d say that more of your interns have been hired back … than the combined total of all other programs with which we work. Send me more!”

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Series: Grow PA

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