In a recent article, Barbara Merrill discusses the concept of employability, defining it, not just in terms of the skills necessary for students to be successful in a particular position, but also in terms of the various forms of cultural capital that students have relative to the labor market in a particular time and place.
No longer is it the case that students can assume that an undergraduate degree will translate into a (high-paying) job as a matter of course. Rather, labor market conditions as well as systematic biases that privilege some populations over others (wealth begets access to elite institutions which begets higher paying jobs).
Merrill cites Brenda Little from a policy brief in 2003, who said that
while there is international concern that higher education should enhance graduate employability, there is little evidence of systematic thinking about how best to do it
Many years have passed since Little made this observation, but it is lamentably still the case that university career service centers are still largely modeled after the placement centers they grew out of. Merrill emphasizes the importance of understanding inequalities, of listening to students, and to appreciating the fact that the institution that a student attends should be keenly aware of its role in teaching students how to ‘be’ in society even as it prepares them to perform particular functions through the acquisition of knowledge and skills.
But universities are not all created equal. At the same time as institutions need to do what they can to prepare students to survive and thrive in spite of accidents of class, gender, race, and ethnicity, they also need to work hard to overcome stigmas on the part of employers who so easily (and like the rest of us) mistakenly view the brand of elite institutions as proxies for talent and potential.