Student engagement tied to career prep

More than half of undergraduates are disengaged. And a quarter say their experience would be better if it included more work-based learning, a new survey from Wiley finds.

Keeping students engaged in a fully-online environment was an enormous challenge for faculty in the first couple semesters of the pandemic. Opening campuses back up was supposed to help.

But student interest hasn’t fully recovered, even as many courses have returned to their in-person formats or been updated to hybrid. That’s been a consistent finding of the National Survey of Student Engagement and other faculty and student surveys. Now Wiley, a publisher and online program provider, is out with a new survey that found substantial numbers of students remain disengaged because they don’t see how their coursework connects with careers.

“Returning to in-person instruction hasn’t solved the problem of disengagement even if students are happy to be back to ‘normal,’” the report says.

More than 55% of the undergraduates surveyed said they struggled to stay engaged in class, and the same percentage had a hard time retaining the material. For institutions, that’s showing up as students leave for other colleges or exit higher education altogether.

  • When asked an open-ended question, a quarter of students reported that additional real-world material, including experiential learning, would improve their educational experience. 
  • And 81% said that it’s important for colleges to offer real company-led projects. About the same proportion wanted support in preparing for professional certifications.

The big idea: A growing number of institutions have focused on bringing career prep into the classroom, whether on their own or through companies like Riipen and Practera, which run platforms that connect faculty, students, and employers for work projects. The University of Rochester and University of Redlands, for example, both provide small grants to faculty fellows who act as career development liaisons in their classes. And, on a much larger scale, Arizona State University recently forged a partnership with Riipen to bring work-integrated learning into many classes across the mega university. To date, 9,000 students have been served.

Yet, that kind of reach into the classroom remains rare. 

  • In the Wiley survey, only 30% of instructors said their institutions provide access to work-based projects and about the same (32%) provide support in preparing for professional certifications.

Beyond the classroom

And outside the classroom, a third of students say it is difficult or very difficult to find an internship. When they do, three quarters are satisfied with their experience. That aligns with findings of other surveys like those by the National Association of Colleges and Employers and Strada Education Network. Those surveys have found that students who have internships—especially paid internships—report greater satisfaction with their education, are more confident in their workplace skills, and ultimately receive more job offers and earn more.

Yet only 3 out of 10 students have a paid internship during their college career, and women and Black and Latino students are less likely to have paid internships than their peers.

Groups like Break Through Tech, a nonprofit, and Parker Dewey, a platform company for microinternships, have zeroed in on internships as a linchpin in helping more women and people of color launch careers in high-demand fields. When Break Through Tech first started working with college women in computer science, only 4% of its participants were landing summer internships. 

So the organization developed short “sprinternships” with employer partners to give its participants work experience in their freshman and sophomore years, before applying for full summer internships in their junior year. The percentage of women landing those make-or-break internships shot up more than ten fold.

But such programs remain the exception, not the norm.

Hunger for skills and meaning

In general, students don’t feel they’re being as well prepared for employment in the “real world” as their instructors do, according to the Wiley survey.

  • 64% of faculty said that students are being well prepared, while only 46% of students said the same.

Students see the biggest gap in job related (29%) and presentation skills (25%), while instructors believe that skills in time management (47%), communication (41%), and conflict resolution (35%) are especially lacking.

When it comes to figuring out their careers, students aren’t just looking for strong job opportunities but also for meaning. More than half of students surveyed (57%) are concerned about finding a job they’re passionate about, and 46% want to work for a company they believe in. If they switch majors, they’re most likely to do so because of interest, enjoyment, and impact.

  • Making a difference in the world was a more important motivator (29%), than either potential pay (21%) or number of job opportunities (11%) in the field.
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