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Combat College Doubt by Building Students’ Career Readiness

Boost career readiness at your intuition to dispel college doubt and help new grads embrace the top job skills that employers seek.

In 2024, higher education leaders must take steps to manage the growing public ambivalence toward higher education as a worthy investment. Despite many people’s enduring faith in higher education, it’s evident that students are expecting a stronger career readiness element from their educational investment, along with clear career outcomes and return on investment. But what’s the best way for institutions to address these shifting expectations and growing levels of college doubt? 

The key to challenging skepticism and sustaining enrollment growth lies in offering academic programs that address career trends and teach students the high-demand skills that employers seek. This means both administrators and faculty must continually gather insights from career outcomes data and benchmarking, explore options for experiential learning, and leverage career-centered messaging in institutional marketing efforts. 

Leveraging Alumni, Employer, and Benchmarking Insights to Promote Career Readiness   

Many people value the pursuit of higher education as an opportunity to grow intellectually, personally, and civically, irrespective of specific career preparation. While it’s true that a college education generally leads to better health, wealth, and career outcomes for graduates, today’s students must also develop a range of hard and soft skills that will prepare them for success in a competitive work environment amid shifting employer expectations. The tension between teaching for career outcomes and deepening knowledge for the sake of personal growth lies at the center of understanding college doubt 

A vital aspect of overcoming this challenge is making room for both realities in higher education. In other words, students cannot experience personal academic growth without the assurance of career outcomes to exercise their new skills and thrive in a shifting economy. Many institutions may find it difficult to introduce a long-term career readiness strategy with the job landscape in flux. However, higher education leaders can start by intentionally connecting with alumni, employers, and gaining insights on contemporary best practices in career preparation.   

Consider the following research tactics to help your institution create a more comprehensive higher education experience:   

  • Collect alumni outcomes data and survey graduates to track their job preparation satisfaction and which skills prove most useful in their workplaces. 
  • Interview key employers to understand what job skills, knowledge, and experiences matter most to their organization and what abilities they will scout in future talent recruitments. 
  • Conduct benchmarking studies of academic programs at peer institutions to identify potential program gaps and opportunities within your own institution.   
How are colleges and universities planning to overcome challenges this year? Learn more with our annual report on the 2024 Trends in Higher Education.  

Leaning into Experiential Learning to Quell College Doubt

Employers are more likely to consider hiring recent college graduates if they have engaged in applied learning experiences or developed key skills. Prime examples of experiential learning opportunities include internships, apprenticeships, work-study programs, or even laboratory hours for students in STEM-focused studies. 

To incentivize these learning experiences, institutions should offer program-specific and campus wide opportunities for students to apply their knowledge in ways that mirror possible career prospects. Additionally, experiential learning promotes the development of valuable soft skills such as collaborative problem-solving and managing differences in the workspace. Incorporate experiential learning into your academic program portfolio by considering the following takeaways:   

  • Survey academic leaders and faculty to establish a baseline of experiential learning, taking inventory of existing experiential learning initiatives and exploring perceptions and interest in expanding those opportunities. 
  • Consolidate experiential learning opportunities under one central office and website to help connect student opportunities across multiple disciplines.   
  • Embed hands-on experience with trending hard skills within core offerings. Consider how in-demand certification and training such as Microsoft Office, presentation skills, data analysis, or CPR and first aid fit within your academic portfolio. 
Help refine your vision of career readiness by tuning into our pre-recorded webinar, Thinking Strategically About Workforce Alignment in Higher Education. 

Marketing Successful Career Connections to Boost Higher Education Reputation  

To effectively challenge public skepticism of higher education, colleges and universities must also back any career readiness efforts with a strong marketing and communications plan. An effective promotional and messaging strategy demonstrates how your institution’s offerings align with prospective student perceptions and needs. Ultimately, institutions that showcase positive employment outcomes are more likely to overcome enrollment challenges.  

To improve your enrollment marketing effectiveness this year and beyond, leverage the following tips that center students’ positive employment potential:    

  • Feature alumni outcomes, career outlook data, and alumni stories prominently in your institution’s enrollment marketing and communications to connect learning opportunities to job and career success. 
  • Address prospective students’ concerns about college affordability, debt, and return on investment head-on in your communications and show students the abundant financial support and resources that are available to help them get the most from their education. 
  • Highlight program-specific career outlook data and experiential learning opportunities so prospective students understand what tangible hard and soft skills they could learn (e.g., collaborative problem-solving, coding, etc.). 
  • Regularly survey prospective students to keep a pulse on their program and career interests. Use these insights to keep branded messaging fresh and relevant. 
  • Use data from institutional economic impact studies to emphasize the positive tangible benefits. your alumni and campuses bring to a region, including workforce contributions and graduate earnings. These study results can be used to bolster an institution’s public reputation and to advocate for increased funding allocations or donor contributions. 
Surpass your campus marketing goals with the tips in our guide, 4 Ways to Measure Marketing Effectiveness 

Most students and families continue to recognize the value of higher education as a way to become a more capable and well-rounded member of society. However, students also require modern, agile skillsets that will pave the way for promising jobs and career paths. As tuition costs and student debts reach an all-time high and employment expectations evolve, this tension between wants and needs creates a perfect storm for rising college doubt. Higher education leaders must continue to find creative, data-driven ways to weave emerging career skills into their offerings and demonstrate how they will help students get ahead. Contemporary employment insights, experiential learning opportunities, and career-focused marketing and communications strategies act as powerful tools to promote the long-term health of higher education institutions.  

Top Career Skills for New Grads in 2024

Prepare more students for employment success after graduation with tips from our updated infographic.
Prepare your students to enter the workforce with the top career skills they need for the future.
The career readiness factor of your institution remains a key piece of combating college doubt. Learn more.

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