There’s no question that the modern career landscape for new college graduates has drastically changed since 50 years ago. The skillset now needed to succeed after college is radically different, but universities’ program structures and educational goals have remained much the same, creating an unfulfilled student need.
Time for an update
Students are still attending college in droves, but are now finding that degree programs stop short of offering them the 21st century skills and social capital they need to succeed after college. Many students now want the same modern skills that employers want, plus the social capital that comes from developing leadership and entrepreneurship skills, coupled with real world experience.
In a series of first-hand conversations with students, we found that keeping up with these 21st century needs has led students to take on extracurricular opportunities that they believe will fill this gap and help them navigate the postgraduate world.
This behavior indicates that students are looking for more than just a degree from their university, however, the guidance from institutions when it comes to extracurriculars varies greatly. Students cited spending significant time testing activities through trial-and-error or finding their niche through personal recommendations: leading to unequal choice and outcomes for these same students.
We’ve contended that universities owe it to students to provide a modern, broad-reaching curriculum to meet that need, rather than leaving it to students to sort out themselves.
Listening to students
Last month, the GenFKD team embarked on a mini “listening tour,” hitting the road to drop by five of our 26 GenFKD fellows programs across North Carolina and Colorado, asking students about their college experience and plans after graduating.
During these conversations, students expressed entrepreneurial goals, from a desire to potentially start their own business to an interest in public speaking and presentation skills. They agreed on the need to highlight work experience and build a resume of experience beyond academic knowledge.
When asked about career services, students time and time again cited business school programs as the in-school route perhaps most engaged with pushing career skills and resources, job listings, and networking opportunities to their students.
However, often only declared business majors seemed to benefit from an exclusive engagement with their own career center, while the greater student population shared a separate set of career services. The commonly cited option for the student body at-large is the quintessential school-wide activity fair that had students weeding through hundreds of options with little advice.
Ambitious students hoping to gain more skills and experience were being forced to seek out resources and seem to be making it up as they go, taking on more and more activities outside of their coursework. Across campuses, students agreed on the importance of being involved in at least one outside commitment.
The overwhelming majority were devoting significant time to outside activities, from special interest clubs, to mentorship and teaching initiatives, to community service, to internships and off and on-campus jobs, to leadership roles in sports and student government. Frequently, it was several of the above.
Limited opportunities for growth
It’s no surprise, then, that according to The Conversation, “ongoing research indicates that students are seeking out opportunities to grow their skills and social capital through extra-curricular activities,” but that it is often only a few who “corral the best opportunities.” One student with whom we spoke corroborated this, citing intense competitiveness in accessing the well-known “best” extracurriculars at her school.
These “best opportunities” are hard to come by. From the 30,000 graduates surveyed in a Gallup study, a sad 3% of respondents identified as having experienced all of Gallup’s “Big Six” Experiences, defined as “elements of emotional support and experiential learning in college that are correlated with long-term career and life success.”
The elements range from “working on a long-term project” to “a mentor who pushed students to reach their goals” to “being engaged in extracurricular activities and groups.” With each element compounding and correlating to more degrees of success, it’s notable that a full 25% of college graduates missed out completely on all six.
Relatedly, the 2014 AfterCollege Career Insights Survey concluded that “students need more than colleges are providing for career help.” Only 52% of respondents believed college adequately prepared them for the working world and students “overwhelmingly ask for more networking opportunities and a focus on getting a job along with academics.”
Our listening sessions support others’ findings that students need more than a degree. In light of the crisis facing higher education – mounting student debt coupled with dubious return on student investment – many have studied the college experience with a critical eye to what is working for students and what isn’t.
Gallup’s findings indicate that students who access the right resources, those that provide these mentorship and project-based experiences, may succeed in their careers long after graduating. We wonder how many more never find these opportunities, but could, given university intervention to meet this need.
Universities of the future
In my last piece, I argued that universities are set up to provide more experiential learning, mentorship, and 21st century career skills to more students, if they can shift to focus to that mindset. I agree with The Conversation when it concludes that “universities should not be content simply to offer students a leg up to their first job, but must set them up for careers that they value, and for resilience and flexibility in a volatile graduate labour market.”
To do so, we need the answers to several key questions that will impact students’ future success. What do students think are their major skill gaps? What skills are their future employers are looking for? How can universities help fill both needs through both current and new programming?
Some answers have been suggested: Robert Sternberg argues for a new set of curriculum requirements, predicting that, “attributes and skills such as leadership and creativity will come to define the new general education curriculum.”
EDUCause lists several disruptive forces that will mold colleges of the future to students’ and the labor market’s changing needs. At Bentley University, a small shift toward this model is as simple as mandating that “career services should begin freshman year” and that “students in all majors should be required to take at least one business class.”
Universities can assess and respond to student demand for networking, leadership, and other 21st century skills by offering structured educational programming and resources that all students and departments will access, not just the self-selecting few who find the “best” extracurriculars, or the business majors with built-in career support systems.
GenFKD is doing its part to respond now by partnering with students, correlating their feedback with outside research and employer feedback, and developing innovative, student-focused programming in relevant skills, from personal career development to business planning to basic data analysis and programming literacy.
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Header image from GenFKD