Next Steps, New Directions Emerge for Life Beyond College: Part 1

Future plans and career preparation approaches have shifted for students during the pandemic. How have they turned to college supports for help?

September 21, 2021
 
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Zakariya Abdullahi’s internship with the Minnesota Legislature in the spring 2020 semester “was going great” until COVID-19 hit, when no vote or veto could keep the virus from halting nearly everything -- including the internship for Abdullahi and dozens of other students made possible by the Minnesota Capitol Pathways program. Without the infrastructure to operate its internship program virtually, the Legislature had no work for interns.

“They said they’d pay me to stay home,” he recalls, adding that interns associated with Capitol Pathways at least got to network with each other through Zoom events.

Abdullahi had luckily completed three other internships prior to 2020, and after earning his B.A. in political science and government from Augsburg University this spring, he started a job with the City of St. Paul and a master’s program in development economics and international development at the University of Minnesota.

The pandemic did, however, postpone a planned trip to Somalia, where Abdullahi’s parents were born and where he hopes to work one day. And his original goal of becoming a Fulbright Scholar after his undergrad experience became a pandemic impossibility.

Abdullahi is not alone in needing to be flexible about the launch of his career due to COVID-19. The latest Student Voice survey of 2,000 incoming sophomores, juniors and seniors (conducted Aug. 18 to 25) reveals that the pandemic played a role in:

  • Graduating earlier or later than planned (for one in four students)
  • Changing what they want to do after graduation (also for one in four)
  • Changing their major (17 percent)
  • Changing plans about grad school, either to attend or not attend (16 percent)

Fewer than one in 10 said the pandemic changed the college they attend or that it altered the level of credential they are pursuing.

Meanwhile, nearly half of respondents to the survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and presented by Kaplan, said the pandemic hasn’t resulted in any of the changes mentioned.

James Phelan, who earned a mechanical engineering degree from Villanova in 2020 and completed a fifth year this past spring for his master’s, attributes the significant portion of students not making changes to individuals “being attached to the idea of the pandemic being temporary.” Aside from those who may have discovered a passion for public health or epidemiology, he says, “people are trying to muddle through,” sticking with program and career decisions already made.

The Student Voice survey also focused on whether the pandemic influenced choice of college and happiness with that choice, plus how well career centers did during the pandemic and what student expectations are for career services this semester.

Only 8 percent of students say they wish they chose a different college because they’re unhappy with how their institution handled the previous 18 months. And 61 percent agree at least somewhat (22 percent strongly) that their career center has had sufficient services and supports for students during the pandemic. Yet few students participated in virtual internships, and most students are worried about finding a meaningful first job after graduation.

Kim Churches, the new president of the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, says she “saw a lot of uncertainty, angst and worry” while examining the survey findings.

Read on for a closer look at how students’ future plans and career preparation have shifted during this era of disruption.

Academic Choices and Career Plans

An opportunity with a start-up at Villanova allowed Phelan to contribute to research on an urgently needed product early in the pandemic: ventilators. Virtually and in person, Phelan assisted with development of NovaVent, a low-cost ventilator with capabilities similar to commercial machines that was designed as open source, allowing anyone in the world to reproduce it.

While Phelan accepted a full-time role after graduation in another area, process safety, he really enjoyed the research for NovaVent and the high-level discussions with professors that the project involved. “It’s made me consider getting a Ph.D., although that’s on the back burner for now,” he says.

Several survey respondents shared how the pandemic influenced decisions to either pursue or turn away from the highly affected medical and education fields.

A student in Michigan who originally had med school aspirations wrote, “After seeing the hardships and dismissal of their professional opinion that physicians faced during the pandemic, I decided that was not the role I wanted to play in health care after all.”

Data from the online education giant Western Governors University indicate a negative pandemic effect on interest in health services fields, says President Scott Pulsipher. From July 2018 through June 2021, the number of Western Governors graduates increased across all colleges -- except for the College of Health Professions.

The university’s typical student is a working learner, so progress to degree was likely delayed for these students because they were working in health care or as other first responders during the pandemic, says Emily Jackson, manager of communications. In WGU’s Teachers College, meanwhile, students tended to graduate faster. From July 2020 to June 2021, the institution had a goal of 9,900 graduates for that school, but 12,500 students wound up earning diplomas during that period.

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Of the 479 Student Voice students whose postgraduation plans changed because of COVID, 17 percent now plan to go into education, compared to 12 percent of the full survey sample. One of those students, at a Florida university, took a long-term substitute position in a middle school during the pandemic and now wants to join the teaching profession.

Many students involved in internship and career readiness experiences through the Washington Center, which has partnerships with 400 colleges and about the same number of employers, have been shifting their academic pursuits and career goals, says Churches. She is also hearing about students adding a minor, perhaps to become more competitive in the job market.

Among Student Voice survey respondents who changed their major or postgraduation plans because of COVID-19, only about one-quarter are very confident that they’re now in the right academic program. Groups with the most confidence about their program choices are Republican-leaning students and students at private nonprofit colleges.

Several students expressed a positive pandemic factor: more time during COVID-19 to think through their career options. “Having to be more isolated does lend itself to more introspection,” notes Kevin Grubb, executive director of the career center as well as associate vice provost for professional development at Villanova. “It’s been an interesting opportunity for everyone to take stock of what’s most important to them, and what they want to do next.” And he doesn’t just mean the pandemic. “Really what this has done -- the pandemic, the racial injustice we’ve seen, the political environment in this country -- all of these things have brought values to the fore. What do you value? Conversations are happening faster and more deeply than they ever have.” A focus on personal values is a positive for career decision making, Grubb adds.

Pulsipher says students feeling like they might be in the wrong program shouldn’t necessarily change their major. “I’m certainly not in the field I studied,” he says. “Some of the things I value now were not in my program as an undergrad.” So instead of a program pivot, students might work with career services on better preparing for their future work as well as finding the wisdom in liberal arts disciplines such as history, writing, the arts and the humanities.

Graduation Timing and Grad School Intentions

Breaking down Student Voice survey results by gender, respondents identifying as nonbinary are more likely than their peers to say the pandemic impacted their next steps after college. There were only 63 nonbinary students in the sample, but they are 24 percent more likely than their binary-identified peers to say it has affected what they want to do after graduation and 15 percent more likely to say it has affected grad school plans (either going or not going).

Simone Ispa-Landa, an associate professor in the School of Education & Social Policy at Northwestern University whose research interest areas include gender studies, explains that while it’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions, the differences between binary and nonbinary students is interesting. “Narrow and binary constructions of sex and gender contribute to and intersect with other systems of privilege and disadvantage, like race and class,” she says, adding that each of the systems shapes what tools and considerations come into play for binary and nonbinary students as they manage challenges associated with the pandemic.

Ispa-Landa believes higher education can do more to create gender-affirming career advising environments -- in which advisers “will compassionately acknowledge the barriers facing nonbinary students in society, and allow for productive conversations that do not leave students feeling misunderstood, embarrassed or harassed.”

Students at two-year institutions, meanwhile (250 of the respondents), are most likely to report the pandemic has affected anticipated graduation timing -- 40 percent compared to 24 percent at four-year colleges.

Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

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“I want to get a job as soon as possible,” wrote one community college student who intends to change plans from pursuing a nursing degree to seeking a faster, less expensive program.

Others are taking longer to graduate. Several Student Voice respondents noted a delay in anticipated graduation because of the need to reduce their course loads during the pandemic. Another common issue was not being able to take required courses that must be or are better in person. One public university student’s graduation is delayed because computer labs were closed and he was unable to run the specialty software needed for his academic program from his home.

Western Governors saw a significant increase in students opting for a one-term break from their studies, says Pulsipher. Examining data from March 2019 to February 2021, every month except for one had a higher percentage of students on term break during pandemic months compared to pre-pandemic, says Jackson.

Abdullahi’s pivot to entering grad school came about because it seemed jobs weren’t available for those finishing up college. The idea also came up in discussions during his senior thesis class. He’s currently taking three graduate courses this semester as he works part-time.

A possible missed opportunity for students looking to complete studies or start a new or better job sooner involves alternative credentials. Just 14 percent of students surveyed know that their college offers digital badges or microcredentials, but 23 percent would be very interested in earning such credentials to promote their skills, experience and knowledge to future employers. The idea is especially attractive to Black and Latinx students.

Churches recalls a seven-week certificate program on diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace while in her previous role as CEO of the American Association of University Women. Participants, who had college degrees already, hungered for the additional credential and enthusiastically connected virtually during the pandemic to build out their networks. Pre-pandemic, networking as part of the job search was a different, simpler process involving, for example, alumni events. “When all of that is by Zoom … it’s much harder to do,” she says.

Advising Attitudes and Activities

Students generally report positive feelings about academic advising and career services offered by their institutions during COVID. About six in 10 students found academic advising extremely or somewhat helpful, with two-year students being much more likely than those at four-year institutions to rate these services as extremely helpful. In addition, about six in 10 of students over all agree strongly or somewhat that their career centers have had sufficient services and supports during this time.

When asked about career center programming focused specifically on preparing for a career or job search during a pandemic, nearly half of students surveyed were aware of such options, but only 13 percent could affirm both awareness and attendance. The 1,226 students who expressed at least some satisfaction with career services during COVID were more likely to report that COVID-specific programming was offered.

Here’s how two university career centers approached COVID content:

  • Villanova’s career center worked with a team of industry advisers in spring 2020 to share what companies were hiring or pausing on hiring at the time. Students could click on various sections of a web portal based on their current situation, such as having study abroad disrupted or a research project halted. The site got thousands of views within a month, says Grubb. In addition, the center executed a campaign involving direct outreach to members of the Class of 2020 seeking employment or who had employment disrupted.
  • The Carson Center for Student Success, which supports business college students at Washington State University, organized panels on “Resilience in Uncertain Times: The Impact of the COVID Recession” and “Navigating Networking in a Virtual World.” In individual advising sessions, students interested in online internships and jobs have gotten assistance in finding opportunities, says Suzi Billington, director of the center. Another hot topic during the pandemic has been how to articulate nontraditional experiences to show transferrable skills.

As virtual-only opened up to virtual or in-person advising options at many institutions, what did students choose? For the students Billington’s office works with, in-person academic advising but virtual career consultations seemed to be preferred.

In addition, students have tended to be more prepared for career advising appointments than in the past. “We had fewer no-shows, and students who came were razor-sharp focused,” Billington says. “They knew it was going to be difficult, that they couldn’t just do what their friends did a year or two ago.”

Part two of this article focuses on career-related experiences and how colleges can meet student expectations and needs this academic year.

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