Feeling Ready for a Career

Annual survey of student engagement finds that students feel confident in their postgraduation plans. Other recent reports have suggested otherwise.

November 29, 2018

A vast majority of college seniors believe what they’re learning is relevant to their career paths, and they feel relatively confident in their plans after graduation, according to findings by the National Survey of Student Engagement, released today.

About nine in 10 seniors who participated in the annual survey believe that what they learn in class will be relevant to their career plans. This data point strikes a more optimistic note than previous studies, namely one by Gallup and Strada Education Network earlier this year that indicated students feel ill prepared and unconfident before entering the work force. Only about 34 percent of students surveyed for that report indicated they believed they would graduate with the knowledge to be prepared for a career.

About 3,700 seniors from 38 four-year institutions answered questions on career preparation in the survey. This was part of the NSSE, which is administered to a limited number of institutions and changes every year depending on what officials find most topical. Last year’s NSSE focused on whether students were learning about different cultures and diversity in the classroom.

Over all, 289,867 students from nearly 500 institutions (almost all American) responded to the broader survey.

NSSE director Alexander McCormick said that with the public so focused on the value of higher education and whether students are truly benefiting from college with the amount of money they spend, the researchers wanted to emphasize career prep.

“It’s important and very much on the mind of students,” McCormick said.

About 85 percent of seniors in professional fields, including business, communications, public relations, engineering and health and social services, said they knew what they’d like to do postgraduation and had a specific career in mind. Roughly 80 percent of seniors in arts and science-related fields indicated the same.

A little more than half of the seniors indicated that sometime in their final year in college they had used their institution’s career services department to learn about their field. About half of the seniors attended a career fair, and 60 percent or so of them had interviewed or shadowed a professional in their chosen field. About 40 percent of students in the Gallup/Strada survey said they had used their career center at all. 

McCormick pointed out that the question only asked students whether they had done that type of the career prep work in their senior year, meaning many of them may have laid the groundwork earlier in college. He also said that the Gallup poll was designed differently than NSSE, and that Gallup's survey was provided a "neutral" response while NSSE did not, meaning that some students would have been drawn away from the two ends of the response frame. He also said that Gallup's survey only highlighted the students who answered "strongly agree" on the survey questions, while NSSE combined both "agree" and "strongly agree."

Only about half the seniors talked to career services staffers about their career interests, but almost all of them had discussed their plans with a family member (98 percent) or another student (94 percent).

While research shows students are still visiting traditional career centers, not as many find them particularly helpful -- another Gallup study showed that only 17 percent of recent graduates considered their interactions with career services “very helpful.”

Student services such as career centers generally struggle with attracting their clientele, McCormick said. But he suggested that institutions examine how they’re connecting students and perhaps consider outreach -- a focus group, or a campus-based survey -- on how to bring in students to the centers.

“It only takes a couple students to have a bad experience to damage the whole operation, sometimes unfairly,” McCormick said.

The NSSE researchers also studied career preparation for first-year students -- 484 of them -- at seven historically black colleges and universities, and compared them to 346 African American freshmen attending predominantly white institutions.

Students at the HBCUs reported using career services much more than their counterparts -- nearly 50 percent of the first-year HBCU students took advantage of resources from career services versus more than 25 percent of students at the predominantly white universities.

“It suggests that the HBCUs are being a lot more intentional about drawing students in early in career preparation,” McCormick said.

Time Spent on Academics vs. Outside the Class

Outside of the focus on career prep, the NSSE included its standard questions on students’ academics and how they allotted their time.

About 23 percent of first-year students -- as well seniors -- estimated they spent between six and 10 hours per week preparing for class, which would include studying, reading or writing, or doing lab or other course work.

Only about 6 percent of the freshmen indicated they spent more than 30 hours on this type of academic work, compared to 8 percent of seniors.

Roughly 33 percent of first-year students didn’t participate in any sort of activity on campus such as student government, a club or a fraternity or sorority, while 44 percent of seniors didn’t devote any time to extracurriculars.

About 30 percent of seniors said they spent between one and five hours a week relaxing or socializing -- spending time with friends, watching TV or videos, or going online. Fewer first-year students (21 percent) reported spending one to five hours on recreational time. About 26 percent of first-year students said they spent between six and 10 hours socializing or relaxing.

Civic Engagement

Freshmen and seniors seem to discuss issues both on campus and off -- at the state, national and global level -- more than they act to change them.

About 45 percent of first-year students and 43 percent of seniors indicated they “sometimes” talk about local or campus issues with others. And 41 percent of freshmen and 37 percent of seniors reported “sometimes” discussing national or world issues.

But 64 to 65 percent of freshmen reported they had never organized with others to work on either local problems or state, national or global issues. And 63 percent of seniors had never done any advocacy work around either campus issues or beyond.

Only about 4 percent of first-year students said they “very often” organized to work on any issues, campus or otherwise, versus about 5 percent of seniors.


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