How do Students Choose a Career Pathway?
I enjoy talking with my students about their plans following their completion of a baccalaureate program. As you might have anticipated, their aspirations are as varied as the human genome.
While a connection seems to exist between course type and my students’ self-reported professional aspirations, I often see stable commonality among responses. When I ask my students about their career or professional goals after college, my initial reaction is to cringe, as I receive an abundance of underdeveloped comments like, “To make more money!” While this sentiment haunts me in my dreams, I couch the seemingly certain tone within students’ palpable uncertainty or frivolity. It’s clear to me that some undergraduates’ outcomes tend to be primarily attributed to randomness or pure chaos, but how do institutions make meaning of this, in relation to their larger accreditation agenda?
Does these type of student comments strike you, too, as an absurdity? Your response or reaction to my question may be largely determined by your personal background, which includes where you culminated your post-secondary training. Regardless, it’s clear that colleges and universities do not do nearly enough to train our students on how their course-taking and degree-seeking behaviors align with or map onto diversified professional pathways. How can we expect them to be informed economic participants? While I understand that our regional and specialized accreditor(s) must look at how higher education institutions are responding to the issue, the more permanent solution can be found at an earlier stage of education (this is typical, and I usually claim that higher education is the adult punished for a younger sibling’s misbehavior, but this is my bias). Let us agree that addressing this impasse goes beyond the scope of this writing.
Let’s think about our own travels when trying to sort out the answer. Years ago, when I was finishing up my first master’s degree and meditating on the courage required to pursue a terminal degree program, a fantastic professor told me in the context of my career interests, “You know, Christos, serendipity will largely determine your outcome.” For someone who suffered with pervasive struggles to relinquish full [personal] control, the sentiment bothered me greatly, at the time. But, like a tattered piece of sea glass, life has since sorted out my dilemma, serendipitously. (Dr. Culbert, if you’re reading this, I’ve made excellent progress in this area).
Are students’ future career pathways and outcomes a consequence of serendipity and a makeshift stab at actualization, as my former professor suggested? Is the Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” entirely obsolete? Both? None?
More importantly, why does this matter, in keeping with the theme of my writings? In short, since you can reference the accreditation details later, suffice it to say that our regional (and specialized) accreditors have taken a keen interest in how institutions achieve their education objectives via a robust set of core functions.
What can colleges and universities do in order to strengthen their core functions? It begins with student services, and, namely, career services (my naming of this area should not cause you to discount the others, as that would be a grave accreditation mistake).
You can’t afford a completely staffed unit or functional area, you say? Don’t worry! I have a plan (but I disclose only a portion in this post).
Informing Students’ Post-Baccalaureate Aspirations for Accreditation Purposes
In my teaching, students hear at least a half dozen times throughout the term this sentiment of mine: “If you fully intend on having a greater likelihood of enjoying a place within the middle class, and assuming you don’t have the right type of capital already lined up, then I strongly encourage you to pursue graduate studies. Not to mention, the extra education will enrich the entirety of your living.” I get through to some students. Others, not so much. Regardless of my caring and encouragement, there’s an accreditation criterion that thoroughly inspects how your accreditation peer evaluators will look at this phenomenon as they interrogate your institution and its actors.
Let me offer some cheap options (in relative cost comparisons, that is, but equally as effective) for servicing this very valuable function. If you have a non-traditional student population, then listen up.
Consider these recommendations:
- Economic Modeling – Emsi, a powerful economic modeling software, fuses multiple sources of rich information together to develop the most valuable labor and marketplace forecast available anywhere. I’ve worked with them for years and in multiple sectors of higher education. While their software can be used to align learning outcomes assessment, the information therein is doubly valuable for helping students understand the variation in career pathways, as well as the most recent labor market trends by region and nation. Please note that the efficacy of this software for student services is intimately tied to its use and how it’s communicated to students. Said differently, passing out packets of information and then moving on is an entirely useless action, so don’t waste our time, please. Think student-centered. Think engaged learning. Consider requesting that faculty incorporate some type of learning event or objective to involve the material at some point during their course. Tailor data requests and reports to specific course needs. Get creative! Do not be passive. And, as always, document, document, document! If you’re an achiever and desire to showcase your institution’s effectiveness, then conduct an investigation to look at how the information was used in order to design improvements for the following academic year.
- Journeys – You’re fortunate that I’m sharing this gem, but I wouldn’t be a prosocial source of support if I didn’t spread the word. This company – which is launching as we speak – is incredibly impressive, and my institution is super fortunate to be an early adopter. Our next cohort of students is fortunate to receive access to the type of information this coming academic year. When I first considered my own career pathway, I had these two sources: 1) family’s nagging to become a chemical engineer, or something of the sort; and, 2) an awkward educational psychologist in the career center who administered a personality test with no meaningful interpretation (mind you, the institution enjoyed a full accreditation status, shockingly). Now, students entering higher education (traditional age students comprise Generation Z) have access to some of the most sophisticated tools available. Put them to good use.
How should you transmit this information? In research, we always communicate the importance of knowing your audience. This is doubly important in relation to student services and affairs. If the majority of your incoming cohort (both transfers and first-time, full-time students) are traditional college-age, regardless of other demographic characteristics, then you must really be active and engaged. Woe to you if your faculty or administrators are out-of-touch, as you must really sell these services to students (the customers of higher education will no longer be spoon-fed). This is ironic, due to the fact that incoming students occasionally think that they’ve figured it all out, for the most part, or that circumstances will always “be alright.” Life has an ugly way of awakening folks, amplifying the importance of high quality student services at colleges and universities.
In summary, we must elevate the quality and sophistication of support services. Operating on a shoestring budget builds the perception that achieving high quality is particularly challenging, albeit unnecessarily. I have many more ideas on this topic, but this is a good place for you to go to the “marination station” to brew insight and chisel your action plan. Below, you’ll find some additional information for further consideration.
References for Further Reading
(read any of the following to deepen your bank of information for accreditation and accountability purposes).
Bennett, D., Richardson, S., & MacKinnon, P. (2015). Enacting strategies for graduate employability: How universities can best support students to develop generic skills. Sydney: Australian Government Office for Learning and Tea
Burns, G. N., Jasinski, D., Dunn, S., & Fletcher, D. (2013). Academic support services and career decision‐making self‐efficacy in student athletes. The Career Development Quarterly, 61(2), 161-167.
Dey, F., & Cruzvergara, C. Y. (2014). Evolution of career services in higher education. New Directions for Student Services, 2014(148), 5-18.
Hartung, P. J., Savickas, M. L., & Walsh, W. (2015). APA handbook of career intervention, Volume 1: Foundations. American Psychological Association.
Harvey, N., & Shahjahan, M. (2013). Employability of Bachelor of Arts graduates. Sydney: Office for Learning and Teaching.
Maree, J. K. (2015). Blending retrospect and prospect in order to convert challenges into opportunities in career counseling. In Exploring new horizons in career counseling (pp. 3-24). SensePublishers.
Maree, K., & Di Fabio, A. (Eds.). (2015). Exploring new horizons in career counseling: Turning challenge into opportunities. Springer.
Sampson Jr, J. P., Peterson, G. W., Reardon, R. C., Lenz, J. G., Finklea, M. B., Freeman, V. F., … & Center, D. S. (2016). Bibliography: A cognitive information processing (CIP) approach to career development and services.