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A small, diverse group of student leaders smiles at the camera in an office space. One is a wheelchair user. They have folders and coffee, as if in a meeting.

Leadership position experience in college appears to favor wealthier, continuing-generation students.

SeventyFour/iStock/Getty Images Plus

The Student Voice survey on the college experience revealed concerning disparities in students’ involvement in campus life beyond the classroom. Now a new set of findings from the same survey shows gaps between subgroups of students in their leadership experience, with such experience appearing to favor wealthier, continuing-generation students. That’s significant because leadership experience alerts potential employers that a student has developed some of the essential or people skills (formerly known as soft skills) they value.

That students who enter college with certain advantages leave college with additional advantages with respect to the job market doesn’t surprise Shawn VanDerziel, president and CEO of the National Association of Colleges and Employers. And he says that having held a leadership position in college is “going to signal very quickly to an employer that this person has leadership ability, that they have worked on this particular skill or competency.”

The Student Voice survey, conducted this summer by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, asked 3,000 two- and four-year students questions about new student orientation, involvement in extracurricular activities and events, and the role of technology in campus life. One question asked students if they’ve held a leadership position in a sport, club or group since starting college. Some 34 percent of students over all say they’ve held a leadership position, with an additional 9 percent saying they plan to do so, while 57 percent say they haven’t.

Students who receive financial aid and those who do not are equally likely to have held a leadership position, at about a third of respondents each. But there’s an inverse relationship between students’ economic backgrounds and leadership position experience, with students from lower-income households being less likely than those from middle-income and especially higher-income households to have held such a position. Just about a quarter of lower-income students have held such a role in college, versus a third of middle-income and nearly half of higher-income students.

Similarly, first-generation college students are much less likely than their continuing-generation peers to have held a leadership position in college, at 23 percent versus 41 percent, respectively.

First-gen students at community colleges have an especially low leadership position rate, at 9 percent. First-gen college students at four-year institutions, meanwhile, have a leadership position rate of 28 percent. This makes sense, considering that four-year college students in the survey over all are more likely than two-year college peers to have defined leadership experience.

Having a parent who completed college, however, closes the leadership experience gap between two- and four-year college students: 45 percent of continuing-gen students at two-year colleges have held a leadership position, compared to 41 percent of continuing-gen students at four-year institutions.

Some additional differences:

  • Relatively more students at private nonprofit institutions (43 percent) have held leadership positions than students at publics (31 percent).
  • Asian students are somewhat more likely than peers from other major racial groups to have held a leadership position, at 40 percent versus 35 percent for white students, 34 percent for Black students and 33 percent for Hispanic students.
  • Although women, men and nonbinary students are about as likely (a third of respondents each) to have held a leadership position, 44 percent of LGBTQIA+ students have held leadership positions, versus 31 percent of straight peers.
  • Students who work full-time are actually more likely than peers who work part-time or not at all to have held a leadership position (40 percent versus 33 percent, respectively).

Looking for Leaders

What is leadership, exactly? NACE defines it as recognizing and capitalizing on personal and team strengths to achieve organizational goals. Sample behaviors of leadership include:

  • Inspire, persuade and motivate self and others under a shared vision.
  • Seek out and leverage diverse resources and feedback from others to inform direction.
  • Use innovative thinking to go beyond traditional methods.
  • Serve as a role model to others by approaching tasks with confidence and a positive attitude.
  • Motivate and inspire others by encouraging them and by building mutual trust.
  • Plan, initiate, manage, complete and evaluate projects.

Leadership is one of NACE’s eight career-readiness competencies, but in the association’s most recent job outlook, employers actually rate leadership as the least important competency for college graduates to have upon entering the workforce. Communication, critical thinking, teamwork, professionalism, equity and inclusion, technology, and career and self-development all ranked higher, in that order. Employers in NACE’s survey also rank leadership as the least developed competency in recent graduates, with just 29 percent saying these grads are proficient in leadership.

As for why leadership doesn’t rank higher in terms of import, VanDerziel guesses employers may view other competencies as more closely associated with jobs for recent graduates, in particular. Still, more than half of employers identify leadership as a key competency for recent grads.

Even as many employers favor leadership experience, VanDerziel says that having held a specific leadership position in college isn’t the only signal that employers may notice—or the only way to gain meaningful leadership experience.

“Many students gain experiences in college related to leadership, and this is a combination of behaviors and skills that they’re able to demonstrate on an ongoing basis,” not just a title, he says. “They’ve gotten it in their student activities work, they’ve gotten it in sport, they’ve gotten it because they were a resident assistant. They’ve gotten it in their work situations. They’ve demonstrated it in class projects with their fellow students.”

Students are therefore “obtaining more of this competency than they’re probably giving themselves credit for, and probably more than what employers are able to identify on a résumé quickly and easily,” VanDerziel continues. So institutions can help students identify when they’ve obtained leadership-related skills and competencies and how to articulate them for the job hunt.

This doesn’t have to be complicated work, he adds, as it can be incorporated into periodic reflections within classroom, work or extracurricular activity settings. Yet some institutions are trying help students in more formal ways. In one example, Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania recently developed co-curricular tracks to shape students’ experiences beyond academics and help them express the related skills they’ve acquired. One of those five tracks is in leadership, teamwork and collaboration.

To VanDerziel’s point about leadership behaviors versus leadership positions, students who have held a leadership position are more likely to spend at least some time per week on extracurricular activities. But many who haven’t still spend significant time on these endeavors.

Among respondents who have held a leadership position:

  • Fifteen percent spend no time on extracurriculars weekly.
  • Fifty percent spend one to five hours weekly.
  • Twenty-two percent spend six to 10 hours weekly.
  • Thirteen percent spend more than 10 hours weekly.

Among students who haven’t held such a position:

  • Thirty-eight percent spend no weekly time on extracurriculars.
  • Fifty percent spend one to five hours.
  • Nine percent spend six to 10 hours.
  • Just 4 percent spend more time.

Researchers at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce have found that leadership is the fourth-most in-demand competency across the labor market among 19 total competencies. Nicole Smith, research professor and chief economist at CEW, has also found that graduates with leadership-type skills have an easier time attaching to the workforce than those without and enjoy higher initial earnings. Smith notes that high-impact leadership experiences include internships and externships or part-time jobs directly related to one’s field of study and career aspirations.

Like VanDerziel, Smith isn’t surprised that the Student Voice demographic breakdowns “lead to these very predictable outcomes” in leadership experience gaps. Also like VanDerziel, she says that employers aren’t interested in leadership experience in a “vacuum” but rather in demonstrated, leadership-related behaviors and skills. So whether or not they’ve held a specific leadership role, students need help developing, identifying and translating their leadership chops. And underrepresented minority, first-gen, rural and low-income students may need extra guidance in building their career pathways.

“The moment you let students wander off and try to figure this out on their own,” Smith says, “it becomes a maze.”

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