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Opinion: Tips to vetting and hiring college grads

Industry Insight

Posted online

While the need for a qualified workforce continues to grow, many Missouri employers report degreed candidates lack the expected skills. In the past, hiring managers looked to college programs that had previously prepared superior employees as a guide for new hires.

As higher education continues to evolve to serve both traditional and nontraditional students, it is becoming more difficult to determine quality programs and to differentiate between candidates with degrees from the same university.

Consider online degree programs. Human resources managers sometimes avoid graduates of online programs, but it’s important to note nearly every institution now offers courses or full degrees completely online. In fact, job candidates from some traditional universities often can complete a degree without ever stepping into a classroom. Further mudding the waters is the adoption of alternative education models, including competency-based education and prior learning assessments. It is, therefore, more important than ever that employers know which degree programs are preparing future employees for today’s workplace.

Competency-based education is becoming popular, as more than 600 institutions nationally are either offering it or have plans to do so. This learning model allows students to earn credit by proving mastery of all competencies defined for a course, regardless of the length of time it takes them, as opposed to measuring the time spent in class accumulating credit hours. Students then move quickly through content they know and invest the time needed to master the rest. The assessments used to define competency are consistently applied across all graduates of a specific degree. This provides for uniformity among the graduates and is often more rigorous than a traditional program where students may ace one test and fail another, yet still pass the course. 

Prior learning assessment, sometimes referred to as credit for prior learning, is also used to ensure students have competency in course requirements that apply to their degree. PLA utilizes various strategies to evaluate the college-level learning a student has acquired outside of a formal college course for credit. This can include work experience or training, military service or volunteer or civic experience.

College and university faculty determine what experiences are equivalent to course requirements. The methods for evaluating prior experiences vary but can include standardized tests, course exams and student portfolios. Institutions charge fees for assessment of prior learning that are usually lower than the cost of enrolling in the equivalent courses. No uniform policies exist governing how PLA credits are awarded and appear on student transcripts, which can make identifying whether graduates used PLA difficult to assess.

The rigor and processes for CBE and PLA can vary across institutions.

A key way to evaluate the quality of a degree is to consider whether the college or university is accredited to offer federal financial aid. Accrediting bodies are responsible for determining whether credits awarded meet the agreed upon rigor and validity standards. Understanding the accreditation system can help hiring managers better assess quality of an earned degree. The U.S. Department of Education publishes a list of federally approved and accredited institutions and accredited degree programs. The gold standard for accreditation at the institutional level is regional accreditation.

Higher education is changing to better meet the needs of students and employers, and it’s more important than ever for HR managers and potential students to understand the post-secondary landscape to ensure the degree earned reflects the learning and skills needed to be successful in the workplace.

Instead of ruling out certain universities because of previous assumptions, hiring managers in Springfield can embrace new advancements being adopted as long as the institutions are high-quality and accredited.

Angie Besendorfer is chancellor of WGU Missouri. She can be reached at


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