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About one in five community college students feel their college courses haven’t taught them enough about skills they’d need in their careers, according to a recent report.

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Community college students need more career guidance from their institutions, according to a new report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE), a research initiative of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.

The report, released on Wednesday, based its conclusions on responses from 83,189 students from 199 community colleges across the country surveyed in spring 2023. The survey was created in collaboration with Jobs for the Future, an organization focused on helping college and workforce leaders create equitable economic outcomes for students. Ninety percent of the students surveyed reported having chosen a career path, but many lacked sufficient information about how to pursue those careers.

For example, 42 percent of students reported that their colleges taught them “very little” or “not at all” about in-demand jobs in their regions. While most students felt their coursework taught them about skills needed for future jobs, 18 percent of students said their courses provided them with little or no information about those skills. Plus, 46 percent of students reported that college informed them “very little” or “not at all” about the average earnings of their chosen careers.

“We don’t get anyone to come and talk to us about career choices,” said an anonymous student quoted in the report. “We don’t talk about it. We just go to class, do the chapter for that week, and then that’s about it.”

Linda García, executive director of CCCSE, said the skills various jobs require, their potential earnings and what jobs are locally in demand have to be communicated to students clearly and often. She suggested arming faculty and staff members with career information so that this knowledge is not just easily accessible but “inescapable” for students, whether or not they’d voluntarily go to a career counseling office.

She noted that many community colleges have embraced the guided pathways movement, a series of institutional policies and practices intended to help students make academic plans and stay on track to graduation, but the report seeks to delve deeper into how to ensure students not only complete college but are prepared to be “successful in the labor market.”

Community colleges are “engines of social and economic mobility,” García said. Part of that mission is making sure students really understand their options for “a livable wage to support their family, to support themselves.” She noted that students might also change their minds about their desired career paths if they knew more about them.

Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, noted that low-income and first-generation students and students of color tend to be concentrated in programs that lead to lower-paying fields, so providing opportunities for students to explore different job options is also important from an equity perspective.

He added that students in general are more likely to enroll, and stay enrolled, if colleges offer them these opportunities and information. He believes community colleges, and higher ed overall, have experienced enrollment losses in recent years in part because “many of the students don’t see a clear path to a career,” without that guidance.

The report also found that more than 58 percent of the students relied on college advisers, counselors and instructors for information about their desired careers, but 29 percent turned to friends and family for that information and 13 percent relied on their current employers. Students who reported that colleges helped them “quite a bit” or “very much” to develop their career goals were more likely to have relied on professors or academic advisers and counselors. Meanwhile, 64 percent of students who selected a career path had never used their colleges’ career counseling services.

“Because of this, some students may be making decisions about their future careers based on incomplete, inaccurate, or outdated information,” the report warned.

On the bright side, the report also highlighted factors that contributed to students feeling like college had prepared them for their chosen career paths. Students who visited career counseling multiple times more often reported that college helped them learn about the regional job landscape and how much they could earn in their career on average. Those who took at least 30 credits were more likely to say courses had “very much” prepared them for the skills needed in their chosen careers compared to their peers with less credits. Students who did internships were also more likely to say their colleges provided coursework that taught necessary career skills, informed them about local in-demand jobs and gave them insight into their future earning potential in their chosen careers.

“Having internships improves retention and persistence … and it’s helping students be prepared for coming out of college with experience,” said Brianne McDonough, a director at Jobs for the Future. “They have a couple of months of experience working in a particular field and have just overall more context for how to navigate the employment landscape.”

The report emphasizes that despite the many positive outcomes of internships, only 19 percent of respondents had participated in one, and that percentage has remained stagnant for the last five years.

McDonough believes this is partly because many community colleges don’t have the resources to provide internship opportunities to their students at scale. Offering internships across fields requires building extensive partnerships with employers, particularly employers willing to pay. Meanwhile, career services offices are already busy helping soon-to-be graduates navigate the job market, and ideally, providing students with earlier academic advising.

“It’s a whole community effort to create these opportunities for students and it’s not the college alone that has all the strings to play,” McDonough said. “It requires support from the state, the local community and this can vary a lot depending on the community colleges’ context too.”

She noted that though scaling internships is critical, there are also other ways colleges can better inform students about their job options, including equipping academic advisers with information about careers, assigning projects that simulate work experiences in classrooms, supporting student clubs exploring different fields, setting up mentorship programs, bringing local employers to speak on campus and organizing visits to nearby companies.

Jenkins emphasized the importance of students having these hands-on experiences.

“They’ve got to connect with people. They’ve got to meet someone in the field. They have to have a positive learning experience in a field,” he said. “It’s not just about information.”

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