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Experts say closing the gap between students’ career outcome expectations and their feelings about their preparation requires helping them see the relevance or meaning in what they’re learning.

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How well are colleges and universities preparing undergraduates for their expected career-related outcomes? A new flash survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse finds room for improvement. With 1,250 two- and four-year student respondents from 58 institutions, the survey also provides insight into how students’ parents are influencing their career choices and who beyond career services professionals students think should be helping them prepare for and find jobs.

Circulated in late December, this survey was designed to illuminate certain findings from a larger Student Voice survey on preparing for life after college—namely that students’ No. 1 career-related outcome is growing knowledge in a subject area they’re passionate about, that parents are students’ top career influence and that students desire a high level of faculty and academic adviser involvement in preparing for a career. Read on for the new findings from the flash survey.

  1. Most students say college should be preparing them for a job or career they love, even above having a job or career that pays well or finding a job quickly after graduation. But far fewer say their college is effectively preparing them for that.  

Asked what exactly their institution should be preparing them for, eight in 10 students choose a job or career they love from a list of possible outcomes, while not quite six in 10 choose having a job or career that pays well and just over half say finding a job quickly after graduation. About four in 10 students say colleges should prepare them for a specific job or career, and just over three in 10 say college should prepare them for any job, via core skills like critical thinking.

These findings are relatively consistent across institution types and student demographics such as gender, race and first- versus continuing-generation status.

Asked a similar question about what their institution is preparing them well for, just under half of students choose a job or career they love—meaning there’s a big gap between the passion for a future career that students want or expect to feel and how they’re feeling about their preparation for that outcome at this point.

Another gap exists between the share of students who say college should prepare them for a career that pays well and the share who think college is effectively preparing them for that outcome (58 percent versus 40 percent, respectively). Similarly, there’s a gap between the share of students who say that college should prepare them to find a job quickly after graduation (52 percent) and the share who say their college is preparing them well for that (28 percent).

The shares of students who say that their college is preparing them well to find a specific job or career, and preparing them well for any job or career, more closely align with students’ expectations on those respective fronts.

Students’ feelings about how their institution is preparing them for various career-related outcomes are relatively consistent across institution types and student demographics.

  1. Four in five respondents indicate their parents have influenced their career plans, and parents do so in a number of meaningful ways—especially for continuing-generation students.  

Encouraging students to study a particular field is the top way students say their parents or guardians influence their career plans, with nearly four in 10 students choosing this. Three in 10 students over all say parents or guardians have helped them research potential careers.

About two in 10 students say their parents have done each of the following: led by example with a career they’d like to mirror, encouraged them to find a lucrative field, helped them research which institutions to attend with a certain career in mind and tied financial support for postsecondary education to studying a certain field. Only about one in 10 students says their parents encouraged them to visit campus career services.

Just two in 10 students say their parents haven’t influenced their career plans in any way.

All these findings are somewhat consistent across institution types and student subgroups, with one big exception: first- versus continuing-generation status. Some 37 percent of first-gen students say their parents have had no influence on their career plans, versus 12 percent of continuing-gen students, for instance. And while about four in 10 continuing-gen students’ parents each have encouraged them to study a specific field and to research specific careers, just about three in 10 and fewer than two in 10 first-gen students’ parents have done the same, respectively.

  1. Nearly two-thirds of students expect professors to help them prepare for a career and/or find a job after graduation.  

Experts say career services professionals can’t do it all when it comes to preparing students for careers and finding jobs after graduation, and survey respondents seem to agree. As for who should help them prepare for careers and find jobs beyond career services, more than six in 10 students choose professors from a list of options. Four-year college students are slightly more likely to say this than are two-year students (64 percent versus 57 percent, respectively), as are continuing-generation students versus first-gen students (66 percent versus 58 percent).

Just over half of students say academic advisers should be helping them prepare for life after college in this way, with students at public institutions more likely to say this than those at private institutions (54 percent versus 46 percent).

Some three in 10 students from the full sample say administrators should be helping, while two in 10 say teaching assistants should step in. Not quite two in 10 say peers should help. Less popular options are campus tutors, other staff, residential life staff and athletic coaches.

Higher Ed Action Items

  • Connecting Coursework to Careers

Why is there a gap between student expectations about career outcomes and what their institutions actually deliver? Matthew T. Hora, associate professor of adult and higher education and founding director of the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who reviewed the findings, attributes it to several factors. Too few students “actually avail themselves of the resources that are available at the career services unit,” he says. (Recall: the larger Student Voice survey on life after college found that three in 10 students have never interacted with campus career services and another two in 10 have interacted just once.)

Perhaps most significantly, Hora explains, work-integrated learning remains relatively rare in the U.S. compared to peer nations such as Canada and Australia. Echoing many U.S. career services professionals, and even many students, he says relegating career readiness to the career services office is unrealistic “given low utilization and chronic understaffing at career centers.” What’s a better way? Faculty members should be “empowered, trained and encouraged to embed career-related info into their core courses”—just not from a top-down administrative mandate.

As for the apparent gap in career-related guidance between first-gen and continuing-gen students, Hora says his own research suggests that first-gen parents often influence students’ career paths through “infusion of a strong work ethic and so-called soft skills.” This is a part of a larger “community cultural wealth” that nonmajority students and their parents may bring to the table—but that often goes unacknowledged within an institution, he explains.

In this light, and in Hora’s additional experience, the practice of institutions stepping in to play a “parental role” for first-gen students is fraught. Other solutions include creating mandatory, discipline-specific courses that provide relevant information and resources—such as a one-credit careers course—and embedding information and skills training into coordinated, faculty-led courses across an academic program.

  • Supporting First-Gen Students

Billie Streufert, director of student success and federal compliance at Southeast Technical College in South Dakota, says that closing the gap between students’ career outcome expectations and their feelings about their preparation means helping them better see the “relevance, meaning or value of their learning.” Academic advisers can play a role here, she says, by inviting advisees “to explain in their own words the purpose” of their coursework and link course content to career goals.

“Do they perceive their general education courses as a checklist to complete, or an interdisciplinary journey to be enjoyed?” Streufert asks, for instance. When learning is made visible, students are “more motivated and better prepared to talk about their education,” including during future job or graduate school interviews.

Institutions, meanwhile, can invite students to maintain a portfolio and use guided prompts to spark reflection on what they’re learning during co-curricular activities and experiential learning (think creative projects, field experiences, internships, research, service learning and study away). Streufert suggests including career competencies, such as those framed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, in syllabi and in campus leadership role and employment descriptions. The Transparency in Learning and Teaching Higher Ed initiative has additional ideas for promoting students’ understanding of how they learn.

Incorporating more vocational conversations into academic advising also has the potential to reduce career-guidance disparities between first- and continuing-gen students, Streufert says. But advisers need professional development and institutional support to mentor their advisees effectively.

Career services professionals—while they can’t address career readiness alone— have a responsibility to offer proactive support tailored to first-generation students, she adds. This work can entail bringing career content to residence halls, sororities or fraternities, athletics programs, academic buildings, and other student organizations, and engaging online students in self-directed education or modules in learning management systems.

Mentoring programs, networking events and employer excursions “also advance the relational capital and career guidance available to first-generation students,” she says.

Has your college or university organized networking events or employer excursions specifically for first-generation student participants? Tell us about it.

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