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An abstract geometric illustration depicting the concept of "tranformation": five linked circles, in a row, transform from pink, to shades of orange and pink, to orange.

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We know understanding why one is in college correlates with staying in college. It’s that simple and that basic. One of the most common academic reasons for leaving college (or not going in the first place) is that students do not see a relationship between their classroom learning and their future careers. Furthermore, in recent surveys, more than a third of college graduates say college wasn’t worth it or that they really didn’t need their college education to do their jobs. Yet, at the same time, 87 percent of employers say college is “definitely” or “probably” worth the time and money, and the statistics on the positive impacts that a college degree has on one’s future are irrefutable.

In the lingo of learning science, what’s missing on most syllabi is the metacognitive foundation of our pedagogy, the why. Metacognition is the very act of thinking about what we are doing and consciously reviewing its benefits. As instructors, we often skip over metacognition in our syllabi, and more generally, in our teaching, failing to make an overt connection between course content and students’ future lives. Making these connections requires a paradigm shift. The good news is this is not a hard shift to make, especially if institutions are willing to support the change.

Why an Office of Transformation?

This is the question we are asked perhaps more than any other. We began in this office about a year ago, in June 2022, when Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, chancellor for the City University of New York, created a new Office of Transformation and asked us to serve in key leadership roles.

The nascent Office of Transformation challenges us to explore what it means for CUNY to accelerate innovation within a vast system that is frequently cited as one of the nation’s top engines of social mobility. Current projects within our office focus on improving the future success of CUNY students and creating an even more inclusive university.

These sound like formidable aspirations, yet we are discovering that by working towards these goals collaboratively with faculty, staff and students, they are achievable. For example, the Office of Transformation is now working with faculty and staff to redesign 25 associate in applied science degree programs at 10 CUNY colleges to improve employment outcomes. Additionally, at least a dozen new apprenticeship programs are in development, and 126 new projects driving curriculum revision, research, and scholarship are running as part of the Black, Race, and Ethnic Studies Initiative (BRESI), which has the “overarching goal of reimagining and transforming University programs in Black, Race and Ethnic studies CUNY-wide.” Two dozen CUNY colleges are introducing new training and engagement programs to combat religious, racial and ethnic discrimination on their campuses.

Additionally, we have selected 50 faculty members representing 21 colleges, across disciplines from art history to geology, as CUNY’s new cohort of Career Success Fellows. Our special focus with the fellows is on the ways we can show students the through line from the classroom to their futures, that we can connect metacognition to transformation—regardless of field and discipline.

From Classrooms to Careers

We start from the premise that almost no faculty have been trained in career advising. We also know that one constant critique of higher education has been that it is not “vocational,” while, conversely, faculty often react negatively to anything that reduces true education to “vocational training.” At the same time, many students, anxious about their futures, aren’t sure why learning English or calculus will get them a job.

The first step in negotiating this contested space is making everyone aware of the extensive research conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) on what actually constitutes “career readiness.” They have identified eight career competencies that employers agree are essential: career and self-development (knowing one’s own goals and strengths); communication skills; critical thinking and problem solving; a range of equity, inclusion, antiracist and cross-cultural skills; leadership; professionalism; teamwork; and technology basics.

Dear colleagues: we’ve got this! College students are learning these so-called soft skills or higher-order thinking skills in our classrooms every day. However, do we know or say that’s what we do? Do our students know?

For two years, the first cohort of CUNY’s Career Success Fellows has been studying new methods for helping students and faculty connect classrooms to careers. We especially like one method designed by Queens College economics professor Schiro Withanachchi. Using a simple grid, she aligns the topics, assignments and methods (including group work or a research paper, for example) in her Statistics as Applied to Economics and Business course with learning outcomes and then with the NACE career competencies, which she calls career success skills.

Learning OutcomesCareer Success Skills
Obtain, interpret and analyze data critically to make decisionsCritical thinking
Master basic statistical concepts and apply techniques to solve problemsCritical thinking
Expand knowledge of economic issues through project-based learningCritical thinking
Use technology to analyze quantitative data using inferential statisticsTechnology
Utilize steps in problem-solving and decision-making through individual and group workTeamwork
Work efficiently within a team structure while managing conflictTeamwork
Collaborate with diverse cultures or work with international data to understand global economic and business perspectivesMulticulturalism/equity & inclusion

Try it! Instead of the deadening first-day ritual of the syllabus review, you might have students break into groups, review the NACE competencies, carefully read over the syllabus and create a career-readiness grid for themselves. It’s an inspiring way to begin a course, and the grid works just as well for history courses as it does for statistics. Withanachchi’s own students have reported back on adapting these skills from her course grid on their résumés, citing examples of soft skills learned in her classes in job interviews and confidently drawing upon these skills in their internships.

Transforming the Faculty Reward System

If we are going to help our students prepare for their lives outside of college, it requires a paradigm shift for faculty to make these meta principles and methods overt for students. Thinking “meta” and “mentoring” are not skills any of us learned in our doctoral work or that are recognized in our traditional reward systems. In fact, the original faculty cohort of CUNY Career Success Fellows designed a survey for colleagues asking about their interest in helping students prepare for their lives beyond college. An astonishing 1,600-plus CUNY faculty members answered this survey, with 94 percent saying they felt it was their responsibility, but with 70 percent also noting that they felt untrained, and 78 percent feeling unrewarded for the task.

We believe that unless institutions recognize student career readiness or life preparedness as part of faculty success, our attempts to help our students succeed will fail. This is an administrative decision, and it is also a faculty decision—one that requires every member of the university to see academic success as a common goal.

Inspiring Transformation

Just recently, on an April morning at CUNY’s central office in midtown Manhattan, our 50 new Career Success Fellows, representing community colleges, comprehensive colleges, senior colleges and graduate schools in all five boroughs of New York City, gathered in person for the first time. We had spent a few virtual hours together the week before, talking about the power of NACE competencies along with other things faculty could emphasize in their classrooms to better support students and connect their learning to the real world. Divided into teams and charged with envisioning a plan for how to encourage more faculty to join them, the fellows sketched preliminary ideas onto oversized Post-it notes and attached the notes (some including colorful timelines, illustrations and even Venn diagrams) to the walls in the conference room. Our fellows wrote about summits, seminars, alumni panels, data, newsletters, networks, partnerships and interdisciplinary collaboration. During a group reflection, they spoke with excitement about how we might prioritize next steps, what they had learned from one another, and how the infrastructure of the Career Success Fellowship would help them to advance this work within their own colleges.

CUNY’s Office of Transformation will continue work like this. We are part of a community of 40,000 faculty and staff at a university serving more than 225,000 degree-seeking students across 25 colleges. We must leverage their hopes and strengths and provide simple frameworks and tools that will help them transform, one classroom, one academic program and one community at a time. Higher education faces real challenges, including from professional pundits who claim that higher education—and especially public higher education—“isn’t worth it.” The research shows us that’s not true. However, it’s a case that we, as educators, need to make, especially to our students. We believe that if, together, we can find ways large and small to enact in our classrooms the lofty goals we aspire to in our university mission statements, everybody wins.

Cathy N. Davidson is Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of City University of New York and senior adviser on transformation to the chancellor of the City University of New York. Rachel Stephenson is CUNY’s chief transformation officer.

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