No matter the degree, most students want the same thing out of education — career preparation that will equip them for employment’s unsteady future. 58 percent of respondents to the Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey said that work outcomes were their primary motivation for pursuing higher education. But even if they know what they want, students today aren’t sure they’re getting it. Another Strada-Gallup survey reported that only about a third of college students feel they’ll graduate prepared for career success. This disconnect spells a major opportunity for institutions to make the link between education and career more clear and position themselves as prepared to offer that guidance.
Step 1: Provide students and faculty with actionable insights into employment trends, outcomes for particular majors and short- and long-term earnings.
Colleges and universities have an obligation to provide students and faculty with insights into their graduates’ economic future. Many students enter higher education with a rather narrow view of the range of employment possibilities, while too often faculty are largely unaware of their graduates’ actual employment outcomes.
At the University of Texas at Austin, the psychology department learned that only a small proportion of graduates pursued advanced degrees in psychology. Most graduates, in fact, went into HR or a related field, where the salaries were relatively low. The smaller number who went into research-related fields did much better financially. These insights encouraged the department to reimagine and redesign its curriculum. Meanwhile, a UT system dashboard provides information on students’ median income for every program offered on the 14 UT campuses one, five and 10 years after graduating. Some similar information is available for Colorado, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
As a country, we can help our students and their families make more informed decisions by offering up-to-date labor market data, information about the demand for particular jobs, starting salaries, skills and educational requirements for specific careers. Equally important, we can introduce students to alternative majors and careers for those who need to pivot – for example, when that nursing program you thought you were going to just didn’t work out.
Step 2: Embed career exploration across the undergraduate experience.
Career exploration is too important to be left to a separate career center. In fact, according to a McGraw-Hill Education survey, fewer than half of college students use their institution’s career services office. Beginning in the freshman year, courses can open windows into career opportunities. Academic advisers can integrate career exploration into their advising sessions. In addition, institutions can offer skills workshops (for example, in Excel) that enhance students’ employability.
Step 3: Better align curricula with workforce outcomes.
A college or university is not a vocational school, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t offer majors in areas of growing student and employer demand. These include such fields as arts management and arts policy, data science, research methods, risk analysis, and sustainability — none of which conflict with a liberal arts-focused curriculum.
There is no reason why supervised internships and clinical and field experiences and project-based learning cannot become a more integral part of a student’s undergraduate education. If internships prove difficult to scale, it is possible to consider alternatives, such as service-learning and civic engagement projects or problem-solving teams that might help nonprofits address a particular challenge.