Two of the most troubling higher education trends these days have, like so much else, been made worse by COVID-19. College enrollments were first disrupted and are now in decline, especially at community colleges. In addition, surveys show that perceptions of the value of college, already shaky, have taken a turn for the worse.
Viewed together, these developments spell trouble for a vital sector that will in fact be key to near-term recovery and long-term prosperity. That’s why I am convinced that it is time to create a new value proposition for the college degree. This is true for all of those seeking to advance by expanding their skills. And it is particularly needed for the low-income and first generation students who stand to gain the most from postsecondary education.
For young people and older working adults alike, time is a precious commodity. They need to see that the hours they put into taking classes, and everything else that makes up the college experience, will have a meaningful payoff later in life. Increasingly, that means offering an undergraduate experience that includes a rich mix of career-related educational experiences ranging from internships to second language development to study abroad. Educators and business leaders have to make the case to potential students pressed for time – and money – that this mix is an important differentiating factor that gives college longer-term value than narrow skills training.
The importance of connecting education to career preparation was underscored by a recent survey from Strada Education Network of more than 3000 U.S. college graduates. The survey found that alumni who reported strong career-related experiences as undergraduates, including advising, mentoring, work-study, and internships, “were significantly more likely to agree their education was worth the cost and helped them to achieve their goals.”
Yet it’s clear from the same survey that colleges could be doing much more on this front. More than three-quarters of alumni gave a positive rating to their academic experience at college. But just half said they had valuable experiences with career and job placement, internships, and career advising.
I’d add a few more considerations for colleges to ponder as they cope with demographic changes that are reducing the traditional-age student population as well as public anxiety about the return on investment higher education offers.
First, along with more explicit attention to career readiness, they need to show students that acquiring language skills and taking advantage of study abroad opportunities (when COVID permits) is also part of what will make them attractive, workforce-ready job candidates.
Next, a focus on careers should go hand in hand with avoiding excessively narrow skills training. As observers like Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce have noted, there’s a risk that short-term, skills-based programs could become second-class pathways that are dominated by low-income and minority students and leave too many stuck in low-wage jobs without much prospect of career mobility.
Last, colleges should strive to help students build professional networking skills – and actual networks – during college. For first generation and low-income students in particular, the ability to advocate for what they bring to the workplace, to develop working relationships with people who can vouch for their abilities, and the understanding that networks are a key part of building a career, just can’t be underestimated.
This new value proposition will require the active participation of employers, of course. One promising sign in recent years has been the paid internship movement, which is a vital step for students who need to make money while they’re in college and simply can’t take on unpaid work experiences. Unfortunately, paying for the labor of interns is not guaranteed, even for successful companies that could afford to pay them. This is often embedded in a culture where companies consider competitive internship opportunities a privilege where the mere experience is enough compensation. While coveted by many college students, these internships can only be accessed by those that have the necessary financial means and household support
Companies that have made the choice not to pay interns are mistaken for many reasons, including pure self-interest. If these companies want to diversify their applicant and employee pool, they should do all they can to expand the number of candidates who’ve had substantive workforce experience to supplement their academic skills.
As for potential students themselves, and the families, counselors, and civic leaders who want them to prosper, this new value proposition will require a new mindset. Yes, academic preparation and working to earn strong grades in college remains important. But embracing the value of two- and four-year degrees will require embracing a whole range of educational and career-related experiences that should begin in college. That will give graduates the tools to forge great post-college lives. The upshot: their investment in college will be time and money unquestionably well spent.