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College students face unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety this fall. And the transition from college to the workforce is one of their biggest worries.
They have good reason to be stressed, given the pandemic’s severe disruption to the labor market. The economy remains down more than 10 million jobs in the U.S. And previous recessions have shown that students who graduate in a bad economy often struggle with long-term career consequences.
In addition, many employers have cut internship opportunities for students, limiting their ability to explore careers and gain work experience.
Roughly a quarter (26 percent) of U.S. undergraduates who were enrolled at bachelor’s degree-granting institutions this fall reported having a job or internship canceled, according to results from a nationally representative survey conducted in September by College Pulse for the Strada Education Network’s Center for Education Consumer Insights. Another 27 percent of respondents said they dropped plans to find a job or internship.
Likewise, most undergraduates said COVID-19 has made faculty and staff members less available for advice and mentoring about academic and professional development. According to the survey, 13 percent of respondents said faculty and staff were much less available during the pandemic, with 42 percent saying they were somewhat less available.
“Career navigation is essentially broken,” said Stephen Yadzinski, acting general manager of JFFLabs, a division of the nonprofit Jobs for the Future.
Yadzinski said the pandemic, recession and national awakening on racial justice have added new urgency to the need for improved pathways from college to careers. And more change is on the way due to automation, which employers say will eliminate millions of jobs in coming years.
“Jobs are emerging today that didn’t exist before the pandemic,” he said.
However, he said the crisis has led to a creative disruption moment. And big employers are more engaged than ever in trying to find solutions.
The relative lack of career exploration options for college students is not a new problem. But COVID-19 poured gasoline on the fire.
Many students are frustrated with their institutions for struggling to keep up with the rapidly evolving landscape of work, according to a survey conducted this spring by Livia Morris and her twin sister, Julia Morris, who both graduated this spring from the University of California, Davis.
“There was already this void in up-to-date, actionable career advice for students, really modern career advice and an infrastructure to distribute that information,” said Livia Morris. “And it’s even worse now when you throw a global pandemic into the mix.”
The survey of 450 U.S. college students and recent graduates also found concerns about the availability of faculty members. Even though the advice they received could be less than ideal, Livia Morris said before this year it was easier for students to talk with their professors and advisers about how to apply their degrees to the workforce.
About the Strada Polling Data
Inside Higher Ed and Strada Education Network partner on Public Viewpoint. Strada provides funding to Inside Higher Ed to support its coverage of the polling data and related workforce issues. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.
“That traditional expertise on campus no longer really suffices because no one knows what industries are going to collapse, which ones are going to emerge, which ones are going to be restructured,” she said. “There’s a lot of frustration about this lack of contemporary guidance and this feeling of ‘how can anyone help me if no one knows what’s going on?’”
Results from the Student Viewpoint survey from College Pulse and Strada back up what the Morris sisters found in their qualitative research. Just 35 percent of respondents said their college is excellent or very good at connecting education to meaningful careers, Strada said. And one in five college students said the pandemic has made their opportunities for career exploration “much worse.”
The economy and uncertainty about the job market have made it harder for colleges to help with career exploration, said Nichole Torpey-Saboe, director of research and consumer insights at Strada. But college leaders should not be let off the hook, she said, and need to prioritize making improvements.
“Even with what they’re balancing, we didn’t think this could wait,” she said.
The Faculty Role
College students who feel supported in connecting their postsecondary education to a career are more likely to say college will be worth the cost.
For example, 83 percent of student respondents who told College Pulse they received excellent support in making the transition to work said their education would be worth the cost. But just 17 percent of those who felt they got poor support had faith in the value of their college education.
The University of Central Florida has been working during the pandemic to up its game on career counseling with a project that focuses on the faculty role.
“We know that students don’t need to go to career services,” said Doris Alcivar, assistant director of employer relations at UCF. “But they do need to go to class and hear from their professors.”
The university is participating in a project on improving connections to careers as part of its membership in the University Innovation Alliance, a consortium of large public universities focused on working together to improve student success.
Alcivar said the pandemic has created a new sense of urgency for the university to work harder on career exploration as internships and other traditional tools have been diminished.
“Opportunities have been somewhat limited,” she said, but she added that the has crisis re-energized her and her colleagues. “We would love to see a culture of career readiness in every class.”
UCF’s pilot program seeks to help faculty members be more current on language employers use in their fields. A key area for improvement, said Alcivar, is helping students better describe their skills during job interviews, a consistent problem employers have reported to the university.
The university selected 20 faculty members to participate (40 applied) and intentionally tapped professors from a wide range of disciplines. Roughly 600 students have been enrolled in the project’s 20 courses, which seek to translate what students learn in class to skills for the job market. As part of the process, participating professors drew from career competencies from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, or NACE.
The experience was a “game changer,” said Timothy Hawthorne, an associate professor of geographic information systems at UCF’s sociology department.
Hawthorne scheduled virtual conversations with mentors in the field to help students with language to use in interviews or internships. Students also were required to apply for jobs as part of the class.
Some of his faculty peers initially were resistant about the project. But Hawthorne said the career mentors -- and the exercise over all -- gave students undeniably valuable knowledge.
“It’s going to be meaningful to hear it from people who are doing it in the industry,” he said.
Oregon State University also is participating in the University Innovation Alliance project.
Part of the problem the university is trying to solve, said Brandi Fuhrman, executive director of Oregon State’s career development center, is that career services tends to be an amenity that first-generation and low-income students don’t have time to use.
“There are so many competing priorities,” she said.
As a result, the university’s Career Champions program tries to better integrate career development into the classroom. The three-week seminar began this spring with 14 faculty members across the university’s colleges. It also featured NACE career readiness competencies and sought to help professors create situations where students are “intentionally colliding with their career,” said Fuhrman.
Not all faculty members are sold on the career development push at Oregon State.
“I always hear that we’re not a vocational school,” Fuhrman said. But attitudes are shifting. And she said the university wants to expand the program.
Hawthorne is seeing similar momentum at UCF, with a broad acknowledgment that career exploration should be part of a good college education.
“It means more when you connect it to the end goal,” he said.