A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

[Education Research Report]

What Employers Expect of College Graduates: International Knowledge and Second Language Skills

July 1994

Since the 1979 report of the President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies, Strength Through Wisdom, U.S. colleges and universities have sought creative ways to encourage the study of languages other than English and to add international dimensions to the undergraduate curriculum (Lambert 1989). In recent years, this effort has been given a boost by requirements for the study of non-Western culture, history, geography, and politics in many undergraduate programs. In the 1980s, the principal argument for these efforts was the increasingly competitive global economy. In the l990s, the argument is part of a larger normative appeal for student understanding of a multicultural society and world.

Beyond both these utilitarian and normative arguments has been a higher volume of international student exchange, involving not only that between the United States and other countries, but also regional exchanges of students, for example, in the European Community and the Pacific Rim (Zikopoulos 1989; UNESCO 1989; Ebuchi 1989).

The rhetoric and efforts in the United States are now showing results. High school foreign language course enrollments have risen considerably in recent years. Between 1982 and 1990, for example, course enrollments in public secondary schools rose 46 percent, and the proportion of public secondary school students studying languages other than English increased from 23 percent to 38 percent (Draper 1991). Foreign language study is now an entrance requirement in 26 percent of U.S. colleges and universities (versus 14 percent in 1982-83) and a degree requirement in 58 percent (versus 47 percent a decade ago) (Brod and Lapointe 1989). Bachelor's degrees awarded annually in languages other than English have increased 28 percent (to 12,100) over the past decade, more than twice the increase in overall bachelor's degrees (Snyder 1993). As for increases in college student course-taking in international fields, the jury is out until the major national college transcript sample covering 1982-1993 is fully coded and released this year. But anecdotal evidence suggests an upsurge.

What Do Employers Value?

Do U.S. employers, particularly those with large international operations, value this education and training when they recruit and hire recent college graduates? How do they use the knowledge and skill investments students make in international and second language study? To what extent do they sponsor additional education in international affairs or languages other than English for their employees? These questions have been explored only occasionally (Hayden and Koepplin 1980; Inman 1980; Fixman 1990; Lambert 1990), and never with large samples of employers. In a 1989-90 survey of the recruiting practices of 479 employers (74 percent in the private sector), for example, only 1 question out of 11 concerning the experience and education of potential employees even touched on these matters: "study abroad" was one of eight "undergraduate performance factors" recruiters rated. From the responses to that question, we learn that only 13 percent of private sector employers judged study abroad to be a significant plus for college graduates (Scheetz 1990).

To begin answering these questions in the last years of the 20th century, the Office of Research designed and commissioned an indepth case study of eight major U.S.-based international corporations employing over 400,000 people worldwide (100,000 outside the United States). In a similar small group case study, Fixman (1990) used nine corporations, but of different sizes, and focused wholly on foreign language issues.

The eight corporations in our case study were selected to reflect diverse industries: commercial banking, investment banking, electronics manufacturing, aircraft manufacturing, petroleum and petrochemicals production, agriculture and agricultural commodities, personal products manufacturing, and telecommunications. The individuals interviewed at the corporations held titles such as director of human resources, director of international personnel, or chief college recruiting officer. Individuals in these positions tend to know more about what really happens in recruitment, training, and utilization of employees than those in more senior managerial roles.


The following conclusions from this study should be regarded as hypotheses since the sample of employers was small. The findings represent the state of recruitment and utilization at only these eight firms and cannot be generalized to U.S. private sector employers as a whole.

Message to Students and Colleges

The eight employers may not be representative, but enough of them urged students to acquire second language skills, particularly in less-commonly-taught languages of Russian, Chinese, and Japanese, to warrant notice. Students should also seek multicultural knowledge and experiences; they will be more productive workers as a result.

As for college curriculum, the most notable view is that international study should not be considered a separate specialization as much as a component of academic and occupational training programs. "Internationalizing the curriculum," a rallying cry of campus and organization leaders fully invested in realizing the vision of the 1979 President's Commission, may have much to recommend it in the global economy.


Brod, R., and M. Lapointe. 1989.
"The MLA Survey of Foreign Language Entrance and Degree Requirements, 1987-89." Association of Departments of Foreign Languages Bulletin 20:17-23.

Draper, J.P. 1991.
Foreign Language Enrollments in Public Secondary Schools, Fall 1989 and Fall 1990. Yonkers, N.Y.: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Ebuchi, K., ed. 1989.
Foreign Students and Internationalization of Higher Education. Hiroshima, Japan: Hiroshima University.

Fixman, C.S. 1990.
"The Foreign Language Needs of U.S.-Based Corporations." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 511: 25-46.

Hayden, S.L., and L.W. Koepplin. 1980.
"International Business, Foreign Languages and International Studies: Analysis of Relationships and Recommendations." In President's Commissionon Foreign Language and International Studies: Background Papers and Studies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Inman, M. 1980.
"Foreign Languages and the U.S. Multinational Corporation." In President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies: Background Papers and Studies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Lambert, R. 1989.
International Studies and the Undergraduate. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

----------. 1990.
"Foreign Language Use Among International Business Graduates." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 511: 47-59.

Scheetz, L.P. 1990.
Recruiting Trends 1989-1990: A Study of Businesses, Industries, Governmental Agencies, and Educational lnstitutions Employing New College Graduates. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University.

UNESCO. 1989.
UNESCO Statistical Yearbook, 1989. Paris: UNESCO.

Zikopoulos, M., ed. 1989.
Open Doors, 1988/89: Report on International Educational Exchange. New York: Institute of International Education.

This research brief was prepared by Clifford Adelman, Senior Research Analyst in the Office of Research. Special thanks are due to Alison Reeve of Pelavin Associates who conducted the corporate interviews and prepared the report from those interviews on which the bulk of this brief is based.
This Research Report is produced by the Office of Research, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) of the Department of Education.

Richard W. Riley, Secretary of Education
Sharon P. Robinson, Assistant Secretary, OERI
Joseph C. Conaty, Acting Director, OR


[Education Research Reports]