Despite the occasional stalwart holdout, the consensus among most higher education stakeholders is that colleges must deliver a labor market return that justifies the rising cost of attendance and often the high degree of indebtedness incurred by students and their families. For more than 50 years, the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) has surveyed incoming college freshmen. Over that time, the percentage citing improved career prospects as a reason for attending has risen steadily to top 82% in its most recent iteration. Promising strong employment outcomes has become a table stakes expectation for undergraduate institutions in an increasingly competitive market for students.

Not coincidentally, policymakers, politicians, and the media have begun to use the College Scorecard and other newly available government data sources to judge programs based on their labor market ROI and economic mobility score, with calls to crack down on those programs that fail to produce an adequate return for the cost of attendance. This growing attention is further fueled by an even greater societal focus on issues of equity, as students from historically under-represented backgrounds seek to have the same access to and outcomes from post-graduate employment opportunities.

Given these dynamics, building new—and distinctive—models to career alignment is an imperative for most institutions.

Depending on the type of student being served and the institution’s philosophy, there are varying degrees of appetite among private and public institutions for building employment pathways into the curriculum through approaches such as experiential learning, co-op programs, and required credited internships, versus keeping employment a strictly co-curricular activity, though we believe the trend at most institutions is moving toward a more embedded approach. Regardless of the approach however, there are certain imperatives that we believe are central to best practice:

  • Equity and access must be at the center: Equitable design and access to opportunity should be at the center of designing and implementing college-to-career advising, pathways and supports. Access to networks and internships play an outsized role in landing a job post-bachelor’s degree. Considering how to design and ensure robust and equitable access to networks and career experiences is challenging a strictly co-curricular model, as students with more robust personal networks outside of school will likely enjoy a distinct advantage.
  • Achieve faculty buy-in: Academic affairs and faculty need to be strong and integrated partners in any investment in career pathways. Key to success in winning over faculty is overcoming the false dichotomy between career preparation vs. developing an informed citizenry. These goals are not in conflict and establishing that principle at the outset of any broad stakeholder conversation is critical.
  • Employer dialogue is essential: Employer partnerships are critical to informing career-aligned curricula, skills, and ensuring students can engage in real-world projects, and internships. Scaling these relationships takes time and dedicated employer engagement resources.
  • Go big or go home: Developing an adequate structure and scale is a common challenge and key levers include making realistic investments in career resources, integrating career and academic advising, and using student and alumni mentors and advisors strategically. 

There are models for improved career engagement for every type of school and every type of student. For many institutions, cracking the code on this challenge can become a point of meaningful market differentiation and enrollment growth. For others, it can be a difference maker in attracting a more diverse student body.

Trace URdan

We have included a small handful of examples below but are happy to share additional insights and case studies if you are interested in exploring this topic further. We would also welcome learning more about how your institution is thinking about this challenge.

Many schools are engaged in innovative models. A few we have encountered recently include:

  • University of Massachusetts Boston PACE A donor-funded program that offers students the ability to build skills via internal apprenticeships. 
  • Northeastern University Experiential Network Project-based experiences for students to engage in experiential learning as part of their program of study.
  • University of Tennessee Don’t Cancel Class A very popular resource for faculty to bring career development into their courses. Similar programs are in place at the University of San Francisco and Washington State University.

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