OPINION: Colleges must do a better job of helping students navigate the future

Higher education has finally embraced the idea that college should help better prepare students for their careers.

It’s time: Recognizing that students don’t always understand the connection between their courses and their potential careers is a long-standing problem that needs to be addressed.

More than 20 years ago, I co-authored the best-selling Quarterlife Crisis, one of the first books to explore the transition from college to the workforce. We found, anecdotally, that recent college graduates felt inadequately prepared to choose a career or make the transition to the workforce. At the time, liberal arts institutions in particular did not view career preparation as part of their role.

While some progress has been made since then, institutions can still improve the connection between their educational and economic mobility missions; recent research indicates that college graduates are finding it difficult to put their degrees into practice.

Importantly, improving career readiness can help not only with employment, but also with student retention and completion of studies.

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I believe that if students have a career plan in mind and better understand how courses will help them succeed in the workforce, they will be more likely to complete those courses, persist, graduate, and be successful in their job search.

First-generation students, in particular, whose parents often lack college experience, may not understand why they need to take a course like calculus, which, at first glance, does not appear to help them prepare for most jobs in the workforce.

They will benefit deeply from a clearer understanding of how these required courses connect to their career choices and skills.

Recognizing the need for higher education to better demonstrate the links between study and career—and its role in workforce preparation—is an important first step.

Taking steps to improve these connections will better position students and institutions. Better preparing students for the job market will increase their success rates and, in turn, improve universities’ rankings on student success measures.

This may require a cultural shift in some cases, but given the rising cost of tuition, institutions need to think about the return on investment for students and their parents, not just in intellectual terms but also in monetary terms.

Such a change could help facilitate much-needed social and economic mobility, particularly for students who borrow money to attend college.

Related: OPINION: After the pandemic, let’s develop real pathways from education to the workforce to ensure a better future

Recent articles and research on the low job placement rates of college graduates often claim that internships provide the necessary connection between college and career. Real-world experience is important, but there are other ways to make a college degree more relevant to a career.

1. Explain the connections to the students. The syllabus is an opportunity for students to make this connection. Instructors can explain how different course topics and texts translate into career skills and provide real-life examples of those skills in operation. However, in some cases, this can be a hard sell to instructors who have spent their careers in academia and don’t consider career guidance to be part of their job.

But providing this additional information to students doesn’t have to be a complicated task and can be done in collaboration with campus staff, such as career services advisors. These connections can also be made in course catalogs, on department websites, and through student seminars.

2. Raise awareness about realistic careers. Many students begin college with the goal of entering a familiar profession: doctor, lawyer, or teacher, to name a few. However, there are hundreds of jobs, such as public policy research and advocacy, that students may not be as familiar with. Colleges should provide more detailed information about a wide range of careers that students may never have thought about, and how courses can help them enter those fields. Experiential learning can provide good opportunities to try out careers that match students’ interests, to help determine which is the best fit.

Greater knowledge of career options can also serve as motivation for students to formulate their goals and plans. Jobs can be described through the same informational pathways as the career-coursework connections mentioned above, along with examples of how coursework is used in each job.

3. Make course and career connections a priority across campus. College leaders must emphasize to faculty the importance of better preparing students for their careers. Economic mobility is increasingly important to institutions and the general public, and consumers now rely on information about employment outcomes when selecting colleges (e.g., see College Scorecard).

Instructors can be assured that adding professional preparation to a college degree does not diminish its educational value; quite the contrary; critical thinking and analytical skills, for example, are of paramount importance to humanities programs and potential employers. Simply demonstrating these links does not change the content or objectives of the course.

4. Help students translate their courses for the job market. In addition to understanding the links between studies and career, students need to know how to express them. Job interviews are not a natural fit for anyone, especially for students new to the job market, and even more so for those who are the first in their families to graduate from university.

Career centers often provide interview advice to students (again, if students seek that help), but special emphasis should be placed on helping students reflect on their coursework and translate the skills and knowledge they have gained to employers.

A portfolio can help them achieve this and can be developed at regular intervals during a student’s time on campus, as reflecting on several years of academic work at once can be challenging. A senior seminar can further promote workforce readiness and tie together the professional skills acquired during one’s time on campus.

By making these simple changes, institutions can take the lead in making students and the public more aware of the benefits of higher education.

Abby Miller, Founding Partner of ASA Researchhas been researching higher education and workforce development for over 20 years.

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