How Universities can Better Support Students from Education to Occupation

Guest blogger Jeff Selingo is author of the books, “College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students,” and “MOOC U: Who Is Getting the Most Out of Online Education and Why.”

Last spring, some 1.7 million students graduated with a bachelor’s degree from U.S. colleges and universities, and immediately landed in a tough job market. The unemployment rate for recent college graduates is close to 9 percent, and nearly half of those grads are underemployed in jobs that don’t require a college degree.

Jeff Selingo

Over the last year and a half, as I conducted research for an upcoming book on the often difficult transition students are making from education to occupation, I found that the successful paths to jobs for today’s twentysomethings are no longer clear or straightforward. As a result, colleges and universities need to develop new approaches to assist students and recent alumni in finding careers.

Here are four institutional practices that can better connect a student’s undergraduate education to the demands of the modern job market:

Start personalized career planning early. Since 2006, first-year students have told the annual UCLA Freshman Survey that the number one reason to attend college is to “get a better job.” That’s why career services should not be something students think of only when they apply for internships or jobs, but rather an integral part of the entire college experience.

Not all students are at the same stage in career planning even if they are in similar spots in school. Colleges and universities must personalize and tailor career information to students’ interests and needs rather than follow a one-size-fits-all model.

Offer unstructured experiences. An undergraduate’s existence is very structured, with semesters, courses, and a syllabus for each class. By the time students graduate from college their brains are hard-wired to the cadence of the daily life laid out by the nine-month academic calendar.

But the working world is unstructured, with competing priorities and decisions that need to be made on the fly, and where the best employees are those who can navigate ambiguity.

Institutions need to provide spaces for students to experience this workplace environment early on through entrepreneurial activities on and off campus, such as business incubators, hands-on undergraduate research projects, and opportunities to learn through different models, including online and hybrid courses and competency-based learning.

Colleges and universities must personalize and tailor career information to students’ interests and needs rather than follow a one-size-fits-all model.

Help students transfer knowledge to the workplace. Work experience alone is not what makes recent college graduates stand out in the job market. The most successful graduates are those who can translate what they learn in one context (the classroom, for instance) to another that is far different from the original (a project at work).

Educators call this transfer learning—the ability to generalize core principles and apply them in many different places. Our ability to learn a basic formula and then use it to solve math equations involving any number is an example of knowledge transfer. The concept sounds simple enough, but it isn’t mastered easily by today’s students who are used to regurgitating information.

The best institutions show students how to recognize patterns and understand the fundamentals they can then use elsewhere to understand information in a new context.

Provide a bridge to a career after graduation. Not all students are ready to start a job the day after college. They need assistance in learning a skill or the fundamentals of an occupation if they didn’t have internships or jobs in college. In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of bridge programs and boot camps to provide new graduates with such skills.

There is no reason colleges can’t provide this skill development, from learning how to code to reading a balance sheet, as part of the formal curriculum while in college or afterwards as continuing education to alumni.

Today, the average age of financial independence for college graduates is 30, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The decade of a person’s 20s is now a time of learning and earning for many recent college graduates before settling into a career. Institutions that assist students in planning career decisions while in college and during this extended march to adulthood will provide the most value for the money spent on a bachelor’s degree.

By helping students think about career planning from the start, offering experiences that build real-world skills, and providing bridges to careers through skill development programs, higher education institutions can better prepare students to transition from education to occupation.