More than 40 percent of college graduates age 25 and under were unemployed or working in jobs that didn't require a college degree in 2009, according to a Northwestern University study. And the number of degree-holders who have filed for bankruptcy has increased significantly over the past five years.
Surveys of employers indicate the job outlook for college grads is slowly improving, and there's no doubt the path to employment remains easier for those with degrees than for those without them. But the competition for job openings remains fierce, raising the question: Are the area's higher education options doing a good job in educating students in fields where jobs actually exist?
College administrators say keeping tabs on employment trends is an integral part of their jobs, but the approach to responding to that information varies by institution. Some create new programs based on those trends, while others use the information to keep curriculum current while relying on an overall tradition of liberal arts instruction.
As West Virginia's oldest private college, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Darin Fields believes Bethany College's broad-based approach to education is a successful one - and while he said the college pays "a great deal of attention" to the employment climate, it doesn't create a program for every new career opportunity that comes along.
"As a top-tier national liberal arts college, we are confident that our curriculum prepares students to be successful in a variety of careers," said Fields. "That being said, we are attentive to ensure our curriculum stays current, and we regularly look for ways to create curricular concentrations that reflect new career trends."
Q: Are the area's higher education options doing a good job in educating students in fields where jobs actually exist?
A: College administrators say they constantly monitor conditions in the job market, but how that information is used varies by institution.
One recent instance where the college did create a new program was in 2010 with the launch of its first-ever graduate program, offering a master's degree in teaching.
Fields said Bethany regularly brings employers to campus for job fairs and works with its students to develop job search strategies and prepare for graduate studies. He said almost 80 percent of Bethany students participate in internship programs around the world, increasing their viability in the job market.
For Ohio University, which in addition to its Athens main campus operates seven regional campuses including Ohio University Eastern in St. Clairsville, developments in the job market are important in structuring its programs, according to Executive Associate Provost Ann Fidler. She said the focus on adapting curriculum based on changes in the job climate is particularly strong at OU's satellite locations.
"The deans and faculty of our regional campuses live in the communities that they serve. They seek to understand the needs of the employers in their regions and work hard to find ways to meet those needs," said Fidler. "Rich Greenlee, who is the dean at Eastern, is particularly sensitive to the economic climate of the counties that Eastern serves and has been tireless in his efforts to bring programs such as social work to his students."
Some areas where hiring trends prompted major change, Fidler said, include the College of Health Science and Professions, which the university restructured to focus exclusively on the growing areas of health and wellness, as well as the nursing program, which was expanded in response to a reported shortage of qualified applicants in that field.
West Liberty University
According to WLU Provost Anthony Koyzis, the key is to be sensitive to the short-term needs of the labor market but still deliver programs that can serve the community for decades to come. To that end, the university has tried to expand into a number of different areas, perhaps the most notable of which is its planned physician assistant program, which President Robin Capehart previously said could begin as early as this summer.
An international MBA program also is in the works at the university's Gary E. West College of Business, a recognition of the need to prepare students for leadership in a global economy, said Koyzis.
"We currently are planning growth in a number of areas which will meet increasing demand. In addition to graduate level offerings in education and the new physician assistant program, WLU is working on master's level courses in nursing, dental hygiene and various creative arts, including digital media design," Koyzis noted. "We also are discussing the possibility of developing an applied engineering technology program with emphasis in energy engineering technology and manufacturing technology.
"Both of these have come about as a direct result of local demand for middle level personnel in the energy and manufacturing areas," he continued.
Wheeling Jesuit University
According to Stephen Stahl, dean of faculty and vice president of academic affairs at WJU, good old-fashioned academic rigor is the best way to prepare students to succeed in emerging career fields, rather than by creating new majors tailored specifically to those fields.
"Our liberal arts approach in the Jesuit tradition and our institutional commitment to original scholarship by undergraduates provides our alumni with the background in critical thinking, oral and written communication, self-direction, and ethics necessary to succeed in life regardless of the economic climate," said Stahl.
Stahl said WJU offers a "strong line-up" of majors that lead to good careers in the health sciences, business and accounting and education, as well as high placement rates in professional and graduate schools.
"Today, good enough is no longer good enough. You must be extraordinary and I am confident that Wheeling Jesuit University is developing the unique talent of each one of our students into a well-deserved and hard earned advantage in the job market," said university President Richard Beyer. "The most promising opportunities lay waiting for students who have been taught to think critically, lead dutifully and be open to serving others."
West Virginia Northern Community College
At WVNCC, Vice President for Academic Affairs Vicki Riley said the college "continuously monitors" hiring trends not only to shape its course offerings but to provide prospective students the information they need to make the best decisions for the future.
"We understand that some fields traditionally ebb and flow but will always need graduates, such as the health professions, and plan program offerings accordingly," she added.
Riley pointed to recent additions such as WVNCC's two-year mechatronics program designed to prepare students for potential openings in the steel industry as aging workers retire, and courses in support of the emerging natural gas industry in the Ohio Valley.
"One of the unique characteristics of community colleges is that we are positioned to add new programs to meet current employment demands and phase them down as employment needs are addressed," said Riley.