Connecting the Dots Between Institutional Programs and Career Achievement

Strategies and technologies to assist those assisting graduating students moving into the workforce.

GUEST COLUMN | by Amanda Lorens

“So, what are you interested in doing after you graduate?”

This age-old question is often posed for prospective or enrolled college students and echoed throughout recruitment conversations, discussions on selecting a major, resume or portfolio building activities and preparing for graduation.

The question assumes the student already knows two critical things:

  • What occupation they are interested in pursuing; and
  • What occupations their program of study (or major) might lead to.

So, if college students are frequently asked this question, we also must assume that we have supported understanding for both. Right? Not necessarily.

Many Worthy Efforts

There are many worthy efforts to support student career exploration across institutions of higher education. Career Services professionals, advisors and faculty have launched extraordinary initiatives including new technology solutions to help assist the graduating students of today in preparing to join the workforce.

‘…professionals, advisors and faculty have launched extraordinary initiatives including new technology solutions to help assist the graduating students of today in preparing to join the workforce.’

Beyond employing research based self-led assessments to help students identify career interest areas and potential majors of interest, institutions are leveraging innovative solutions that allow students to build resumes, store and update competencies and shareable skill badges and achievements.

Yet, Strada Education’s recent Public View Point research indicates that only 1 in 5 students feel well-supported in connecting their education to meaningful careers. This factor has a direct impact on whether or not they believe the value of their education will be worth the cost.


Seemingly Insurmountable Challenges, Silver Linings

The year 2020 brought about many seemingly insurmountable challenges to institutions of higher education and the students they serve – many of which have resulted in students doubting whether to pursue an education at all.

Thankfully there is a silver lining, as many enrolled students indicate plans to re-enroll at their institutions. So, how can colleges and universities help to rebuild confidence in the value of their programs for the prospective students they are not only looking to recruit, but also the current students they wish to retain? And how can institutions leverage potentially disparate technology solutions to systematically connect the dots between their programs and the students’ future occupations?

My experience working with colleges and universities on leveraging labor market statistics to support career exploration has uncovered several key best practices:

Connect programs to occupations.

A significant foundation to building confidence in the value of a degree or certificate is building competence around the specific occupations to which an institution’s programs are connected. The National Center for Education Statistics, O*NET and the Bureau of Labor Market Statistics are among the many data sources that provide resources to help institutions identify the specific occupations related to programs they offer. A student should be able to locate and identify this information easily for any of your institution’s programs or certificates. Institutions that do this well will embed program related occupations (and potential salaries, labor market demand and skill expectations) into their program websites and online course catalogs. This cloud-based and continuously updated data can also inform initiatives to expand or highlight partnerships on career services job boards with local organizations that may be hiring for these related occupations, including providing internship and career opportunities to an institution’s students.

Identify specific skills students will attain through programs or certificate completion.

According to Ruffalo Noel Levitz, one of the top priorities for incoming college freshman today is understanding the qualifications needed for a certain occupation. Therefore, it is crucial to help students translate what is on their course syllabi to the list of required skills they will see in a real job description post graduation. Through the support of innovative, cloud-based workforce analytics tools that are continuously updated, students can identify specific skills and what they can expect to attain by completion of courses and programs. This enables them to see how a particular program of study will help them prepare for and contribute to their future career.

A collaborative effort between academic departments, career services and advising will help bring together career exploration expertise and resources to inform the effort. In addition to providing a review of related job postings and employer collaboration to gain insight on skills currently in-demand, the Bureau of Labor Statistics also provides insight on the skill sets required of occupations in the market. Those resources can be leveraged in the curriculum review process to examine which skills are associated with programs and individual courses. These discussions can be operationalized when institutions partner with their student information system (SIS) administrators to store associated skills in the SIS the official system of record. In doing so, the insights can be centralized and integrated and flow to course catalogs and syllabi and connected student portals – making it easily reference-able for major and career exploration conversations across the campus. Understanding the specific skills associated with an institution’s programs and courses will also serve a useful recruitment resource for institutions who have shifted focus toward recruitment of returning students and those seeking to upskill or re-skill.

The collaborative exercise in identifying which in-demand skills are associated with an institution’s programs can also uncover skill gaps in an increasingly changing labor market. Institutions must also incorporate discussion of efforts to address the gaps through continued curriculum development, additional program offerings or microcredentialing initiatives.

Support meaningful career exploration throughout the student experience.

Left to their own devices and timeline, students might not engage in seeking out support for their job search until they are near graduation. For this reason, institutions must begin to socialize meaningful career exploration as early as possible. It is important to challenge students to identify potential occupations of interest as an assignment in their first semester, a meaningful and effective practice I have observed at a public four-year HBCU, where use of a cloud-based AI workforce analytics solution to gain critical insights into labor market statistics and career exploration are woven into each core program course. Faculty and advisors should be encouraged to incorporate references to specific skills identified and related occupations in advising appointments and office hours – a simple yet powerful practice I have observed at two-year institutions. And career services professionals should also be invited the table for curriculum development and other program discussions; a proactively collaborative effort I have seen at a faith-based institution in their work to expand support services for their students. Savvy institutions are also exploring technology solutions that can put real-time labor market data into the hands of faculty and students.

Evaluate tools and resources to streamline and integrate career exploration initiatives for your students.

Institutions will often leverage specific technologies to support the needs of various campus constituent groups. However this can contribute to disparate pockets of solutions and an overall lack of awareness of what may be available. Building an inventory of career exploration solutions (i.e., competency assessments, career readiness solutions, labor market insights, etc.) can uncover opportunities to incorporate them in new and meaningful ways. Beyond that, armed with this inventory, the institution can discuss and structure how these solutions can be proactively leveraged at different times of a student’s career exploration path. Perhaps competency assessments can be incorporated into orientation to initiate engagement with career services at the earliest possible point. Program related occupation data might be embedded into the prospective student portal to help demonstrate how the institution’s degrees or certificates can contribute to their future careers. Access to a course or program’s related skills can inform advising appointments for students seeking skill development for a specific career of interest.

Opportunity Already There

Opportunities to help connect a student’s current course of study to their future careers may already be at an institution’s fingertips. As we continue to uncover new challenges in higher ed, institutions cannot afford to debate about whether career preparedness is at the center of the institutional mission while the very value of the education is in question. Students are facing uncertainty is so many areas of life. Whether their education is worth the cost should not be one of them.

Amanda Lorens is a Senior Strategic Consultant for Anthology, a leading solutions provider for higher education. She earned her M.A. in Higher Education / Higher Education Administration from Teachers College of Columbia University. Contact her through LinkedIn.


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