Higher education fails to meet students’ career preparation needs (opinion)

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Reading the new national student survey results showing deep dissatisfaction with campus career services, I felt a familiar tension. As a non-traditional college president for nearly five years in my job, I felt a bit defensive. Our career services team has been working hard to keep pace with the changing labor market, and we are making great progress. But as a former special forces officer and business leader, I also know that sometimes stark negative outcomes like these can spur an entire sector – in this case higher education – to action and seek great solutions.

The immediate problem identified in the recent survey is that we are not effectively addressing the career preparation needs of students. Only 14% of the 2,239 undergraduates across the country who responded to a summer survey conducted by Inside Higher Education and College Pulsewith Kaplan’s support, felt they received good service from their school’s career center (only 2% felt they received poor customer service from the career center, and the rest n weren’t very happy anyway.)

At a time when many people in this country question the value of a college degree, this is an alarming result. And it’s a stark reminder that simply making a service available to students is not the same as identifying their needs, developing effective ways to help them achieve their goals, and earning their respect and loyalty.

I’m afraid this important question sometimes devolves into a simplistic customer service discussion: just be friendlier and change your schedules to times that are convenient for students, and that’s it. Not really.

In higher education, we need to move beyond this simplistic view and dig deeper into how our structures fail to provide students with what they want and need as they navigate between college and career.

For example, we have ample evidence that many undergraduates want real-world experience as part of their education. They want academic learning and resume writing help, of course. At the same time, they are naturally eager to connect their classroom studies with career opportunities, whether through internships, summer jobs, or practical classes. But are we ready to listen, take this evidence seriously and adapt our services?

Provide access to experiential learning

At the University of Montana, we believe in the “generally educated, specifically skilled” mindset that integrates a liberal arts education with industry-specific skills. We work hard to address what our students want and deserve by ensuring that every student has access to work experience through experiential learning. Organizationally, we did this by combining what were previously separate departments, the Office of Career Services, the Office of Academic Enrichment and the Office of Civic Engagement, into a new Office of experiential learning and professional success.

But it’s not about moving boxes on a flowchart. This reflects our commitment to deliberately linking internships, volunteering, studies and jobs through a career readiness program we call ElevateU.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, we worked with Parker Dewey to launch remote micro-internships for UM students. These short-term professional projects – which may involve analyzing data, assisting with marketing campaigns, or finding promising candidates for open positions – require discrete deliverables for client companies and are similar to tasks often assigned to recent graduates or interns. They give participants substantial experience, academic credit for the portfolio of work they build, and a taste for careers they might pursue.

In addition, micro-internships allow students to develop real professional relationships, while potential future employers can assess the actual performance of interns before deciding to hire them.

UM students, like their counterparts at other colleges, are eager to show potential employers that they can get started with in-demand skills. To help them get their foot in the door, last year we partnered with Kaplan to offer our students Credegree (certificate plus degree) programs, which allow them to earn industry-recognized degrees in sought-after technological fields: cybersecurity, data science, data. literacy and digital marketing – as part of their bachelor’s degree programs. This means that students will complete their four-year degrees with essential foundational skills – the ability to conduct research, analyze and synthesize complex information, communicate – as well as targeted skills demonstrated through bespoke degrees that students employers know and appreciate.

Our focus on career readiness is not just a response to recent trends or, as some have cynically alleged, a push to transform our flagship university into a “professional” school. Rather, it is driven by the imperative that is at the very heart of our institutional mission: to foster inclusive prosperity in our community and across our state.

First-generation students make up nearly 40% of our undergraduate population, and about one-third of our students are Pell-eligible. For many of these students, who often juggle work and family obligations with school, engaging in traditional career preparation programs, which are often unpaid and take place during semester vacations, is not is simply not feasible. And these same students are probably the ones who benefit the most from the professional networks that are built during an internship and which prove invaluable in the post-graduation job search.

Our work to improve our career services for all students is an equity imperative. With that in mind, we plan to build on our recent successful $450 million fundraising campaign by creating dedicated funds to sponsor students who wish to complete unpaid or low-paid internships. Our students have the talent and ability to work hard to earn degrees, but they deserve personalized support to gain the work experience they need and the social capital so necessary to succeed in today’s economy. .

Embrace the Liberal Arts

One final note that I can’t be strong enough about: experiential learning to lay the foundation for careers is not a liberal arts retreat. Quite the contrary. We have been stuck for too long in an unproductive debate based on the mistaken premise that the growing interest in skills training is an attack on the value of expanded education.

Even an institution like West Point, where I was a cadet as an undergraduate and later served on the faculty, enthusiastically embraced the liberal arts as well as the engineering studies and military training required of every student. . Future leaders need hard skills to do their jobs well immediately after graduation, but also fundamental cognitive abilities and general knowledge to navigate uncertainty and deal with ambiguity throughout their careers. career.

In the same vein, we believe that a rigorous education equips our students with a valuable combination of foundational and focused skills. Both are necessary to ensure career readiness, which is why we believe our renewed focus on experiential learning is an indispensable complement to a broad liberal arts education. If we can strike the right balance, we hope students will score high marks when it comes to educating them for productive careers and lives.

More coverage from the Student Voice survey of students as customers on campus: 8 ways to improve student interactions with campus offices.

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