Reporting on the connections between education and work

Many students have career plans in place, but not networks

NSSE, the gold standard for student engagement, took its first in-depth look at career prep and found that students need more help building social capital.
(Jason Goodman/Unsplash)

The National Survey of Student Engagement for the first time this year focused on career and workforce preparation—providing a new window into what colleges are doing well and where they need to improve.

Hundreds of four-year colleges and universities administer the survey—the gold standard for measuring engagement in academics and other experiences—to their freshman and senior students each spring. This year, 91 institutions opted to include the new Career and Workforce Preparation module, with 55,277 students responding between February and May 2021.

  • A majority (71 percent) of seniors said they were graduating with a clear idea of their career plans.
  • And 76 percent said that what they learned at their institution was relevant to those plans.
  • But only 58 percent said that experiences at their institution had helped to clarify their career plans.

This is “a new topical area for us, so we are pretty excited about the findings,” said Jillian Kinzie, associate director of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research and NSSE. “It does provide us a much more comprehensive view of students’ career preparation.”

Previously, NSSE had only asked one or two career-focused questions each year, but was able to expand that through a partnership with Strada Education Network. Researchers from the two organizations worked together for two years to develop the career module, and they jointly released the findings today.

The details: Overall, the importance of developing social capital and related skills, like networking, came through strongly in the findings.

  • 89 percent of seniors felt confident in their ability to work effectively with people of different backgrounds.
  • But only 49 percent felt confident in their ability to network successfully with alumni and industry professionals. 

Seniors who had participated in experiences that build social capital, like networking, reported more confidence in their career plans and workplace skills.

“There is general skepticism that a college degree is necessary and whether it really helps students get into the workplace and prepares them,” Kinzie said. “In some ways I am happy to offer some assurance to students and families that what they’re learning in college is relevant, that the skills they’re gaining are important and that students are actually doing the things that we know are helpful.”

An expectation gap

That said, Kinzie said there are areas for improvement. The survey found a big gap between what first-year students expected to do and what seniors actually did over the course of their time in college. In general, seniors were about half as likely to participate in career preparation activities as first-year students anticipated. A couple standouts:

  • 70 percent of first-years planned to network with alumni and professionals, but only 27 percent of seniors actually had.
  • And 68 percent of first-years planned to meet with career services staff, but only 24 percent of seniors had done so.

First generation students have less experience with networking. And in general, that is the area in which seniors feel least confident.

Kinzie said there is an opportunity—and need—for institutions to build more career and work related assignments, like case studies or simulations, into courses so students are not so dependent on doing work outside of classes.

“We can always do more of that,” she said.

Additionally, Kinzie said institutions need to take advantage of and build on the alumni and professional networks at their disposal. Students expect to network, she said, but don’t get a lot of opportunities to do it.

“They know it’s potentially important as part of their career building experiences,” she said.

Equity gaps

The survey also found notable equity gaps, especially between first-generation students and those with at least one college-educated parent. 

  • First-generation seniors were less likely (by 11 percentage points) to have participated in networking, or to have talked to a faculty member about career plans (12 points).
  • They also were less likely (13 points) than their more advantaged peers to have done general career-building activities. 

“These are areas where offering additional support to students can help them navigate the transition from college to career,” said Elaine W. Leigh, a postdoctoral fellow at Strada who was lead author on the report releasing the findings.

First-generation students also were more likely to work more than 21 hours a week during school than were their peers (50 percent vs. 33 percent). And they were less likely to complete internships (47 percent vs. 56 percent). 

Overall, students who completed internships were more confident with their workplace skills than students who did not complete internships. First-generation seniors also said that work and internship experiences helped them feel more confident in their workplace skills. But the findings raise important questions, Kinzie said.

“Are they better prepared or is that a distraction,” she asked.

NSSE will continue to offer the Career and Workforce Preparation Module at least through 2022. 

Strada Education Network, which was a partner in the work featured here, is a funder of Work Shift. You can read our policy on editorial independence here.

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