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Professional Opinion

College to work: Attacking a critical market failure

Measuring critical thinking skills for success in the workplace
University Business, November 2013

Because today’s bachelor’s degree no longer conveys sufficient information about the skills graduating seniors possess, there is a market failure that affects employers, students, and colleges. Too many deserving students do not get an interview with potential employers because employers don’t have the appropriate data to find the prospects they need.

Colleges don’t know which students to promote for which kinds of jobs, nor do they understand what kinds of specific skills employers are looking for. In reality, we do not have an effective or efficient market to better serve employers, students, and colleges.

To correct this market failure, we need to level the playing field for all participants.

The case

If we did not have the SAT and ACT in place, admissions officers would only have students’ high school GPA to rely upon for admissions decisions. There likely would be fewer students from under-represented groups admitted to the most selective colleges because the SAT provides important additional information to students’ high school GPAs.

College-to-work presents a more severe market failure because there are no standardized tests to accompany students’ college cumulative GPA that could control for the grade inflation and variability of grades across colleges.

The Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+) is appropriate for graduating college seniors who are seeking employment. CLA+ measures critical-thinking skills that leaders agree are a key requisite for success in the workplace. Graduating seniors who take CLA+ gain important additional information about the skills they have acquired in college. Colleges also will benefit from having more information about the skill levels their students achieve.

The focus on critical-thinking skills—including analytic and quantitative reasoning, problem solving, and writing—is consistent with a shift in the way knowledge is now defined. It is more important today to be able to access, structure, and use information and apply what one knows to new problems than to merely memorize facts.

Of course critical-thinking skills do not cover all aspects of either education in college or what employers look for in potential employees. However, they are essential to most occupations. Here are the principal market failure issues students, employers, and colleges face.


Grade inflation has resulted in the national mean college cumulative senior GPA rising to 3.3 (on a four-point scale). This means most graduating seniors do not have an objective way of distinguishing their skills from other students when they apply for jobs—they are all above average.

Students who attend the top 50 selective institutions are likely to get a pass because many employers will choose students based on institutional prestige. But more than 90 percent of graduating seniors attend less selective institutions. A great number of these students have the critical-thinking skills and abilities that employers prize.


In the age of grade inflation, how do hiring managers decide who to interview in the first place? If, in addition to résumés and college transcripts, hiring managers have the results of a valid and reliable critical-thinking test, their pool of potential applicants would be enlarged.

The employment process would be more effective and efficient, and employers would be better equipped to tap the social, economic, and ethnic diversity of students reflected in all of our colleges and universities.


Since these colleges do not have reliable tools that make the case for their stronger graduating seniors, employers never discover the best students. Less selective colleges, in particular, should consider recommending that their graduating seniors take CLA+.

This should increase the number of graduates from less selective colleges who are noticed by employers. If this turns out to be the case, less selective colleges will change employers’ preconceived notions about their graduates and the colleges that produce them.

Roger Benjamin is president of the Council for Aid to Education.