In the U.S., students have arrived on campus, moved into their dorms and settled into college life at higher education institutions across the country and are investing the next years of their lives into studying and working on earning a college degree. But how valuable is that degree in the outside world? And are students getting the instruction and skills that will help them achieve career success once they graduate?

A new report from The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization with 38 member countries that aims to stimulate economic progress and world trade, Does Higher Education Teach Students to Think Critically?, found that there is a growing gap between the qualifications students acquire at colleges or universities around the world and essential 21st-century skills. These include literacy and critical thinking skills that include problem solving, analytic reasoning and communications competencies.  

“There are signs that the skills supply of graduates no longer matches skills demand in the labor market,” says the report, adding that the quantitative qualifications mismatch is becoming a severe issue in many countries, compromising productivity, growth and a continued increase in prosperity. Employers and economic organizations are increasingly vocal about their lack of confidence that graduates have acquired skills needed to function in and serve the 21st-century workplace.

“Whether perceived or real, skills mismatch poses a serious risk to the trustworthiness of higher education,” the report points out. “What is needed is more transparency about the skills students acquire. Unfortunately, this has not been a strength of most higher education systems.” Instead, what’s needed is not merely a focus on content knowledge, which is proving to be insufficient for students to thrive professionally, but proficiency in critical thinking, communication and problem solving, which are heavily valued by hiring managers.

The Council for Aid to Education Inc. (CAE), a non-profit organization in the United States with a long history of assessing generic skills, specifically critical thinking, problem solving and written communication, in post-secondary education with its proprietary Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+) instrument. For this report, the OCED partnered with CAE, which carried out testing in six countries between 2016 and 2021. The OECD report provides the data and analysis of this CLA+ International Initiative, which yielded some insights.

Conclusions include:

  • International comparative assessments are feasible and relevant. According to the report, the almost complete lack of reliable comparative metrics of what students learn in higher education institutions could, potentially, become a major systemic risk for the sector. However, the CLA+ assessment has potential as a valid and reliable assessment instrument.
  • Students are learning to think critically at universities. During their time in higher education institutions, students overall are improving in critical skills. However, the learning gain is smaller than could be expected. “If universities really want to foster 21st-century skills such as critical thinking, they need to upscale their efforts,” the report explains.
  • Learning outcomes are heavily influenced by students’ background. Factors including gender, language, family background and migration status, for instance, affect the development of critical thinking skills.
  • Students demonstrate different levels of critical thinking by field of study and instruction type. There are significant differences in assessment of critical thinking skills between non-US students in different fields of study. Overall, students in business and agriculture programs had relatively low scores, while those studying the humanities, sciences and social sciences had relatively high scores. In the US, students in science and engineering had highest scores, followed by social sciences and the humanities.