Gregory P. Crawford is President of Miami University of Ohio.
In 1967, more than 85% of students said their college education was important for “developing a meaningful philosophy of life,” according to a report by the Higher Education Research Institute. That number dropped below 40% in 2003, while “being very well off financially” soared. According to the Career Leadership Collective’s 2020 National Alumni Career Mobility Survey (registration required), the top motivations to pursue a bachelor’s degree were “career success,” “financial gain” and “career aspiration requirement.” Aspiring college students and their families are looking for career success as a return on their investment.
In my experience and observation as the president of a university, current students generally reject the dichotomy of meaningful lives versus financial success. They seek connection and integration of work and life, just as many companies have adopted a triple bottom line that considers people and the planet alongside financial success.
I believe most students’ career goals and aspirations are congruent with higher education’s historic mission to empower reflective, productive, liberated individuals who positively elevate others. But this approach calls for extensive collaboration with the business community that not only understands its workforce needs but also benefits most from graduates equipped to be effective contributors immediately. I describe the steps of this process as explore, prepare and connect. Business participation is vital at every stage.
From day one of their college experience, students should pursue structured opportunities to learn about various careers and global workforce needs while they consider their skills, abilities, interests and passions. This exploration aims to identify options where careers align with personal ambitions and fields that will help guide the student’s major, minor, elective courses and other choices during college. Successful exploration includes the elimination of some options as the student learns more about themselves and careers. The critical thinking skills required for such deliberation and decision-making are part of the educational experience — habits that will elevate their lives, including their career.
To help, universities can provide students with career assessment instruments and employment outlook resources designed for interest-career matching. Students should engage career advisors and mentors early and often, in addition to their academic advisors, rather than waiting until their junior or senior year after they have declared a major (a common trend I’ve observed in the past). Universities can also connect students with alumni in considered fields to discuss their careers and help students explore options and opportunities.
Business leaders can welcome students conducting such exploration and offer conversations about career and job-shadowing opportunities where the student can witness the work in real life and real-time.
Students must prepare to engage the workplace — no matter what career they wish to pursue — to present themselves effectively to potential employers and in their specific field by mastering the knowledge, skills and broader qualifications for a career.
In the past, I found preparation often meant acquiring a fixed set of information and technical capabilities that could be the foundation of success from one’s first job to retirement. In a far more dynamic world and workplace, accelerated by the lessons of a global pandemic, I believe preparation includes intangible mindsets and habits, such as openness, optimism, empathy, teamwork and the agility to pivot from failure to success. Universities should strive to shape a certain kind of person, not just a certain skillset: someone who is empowered to succeed in life and career.
To help students engage the workplace more practically, universities can assist students on how to develop a professional résumé, prepare cover letters and create an effective social media presence and personal brand. Universities can also establish co-curricular certifications to help students upskill beyond their academic majors. This could include business acumen, design thinking, innovation and creativity certificates, for example, that may benefit all students and, in particular, those in non-business majors.
Businesses can help students prepare with activities like mock interviews that include non-obvious or challenging questions conducted by seasoned recruiters. Organizations can also share insights on the best approach to their particular industry. Looking for an internship or job in accounting, for example, is different from looking for a position in education.
The past view that the diploma is the ticket to a person’s first job might no longer be accurate today. From my perspective, the value of networking goes beyond the cynical, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” Instead, I believe it’s more a matter of who knows the student than whom the student knows. This personal component highlights the fact that modern success requires more than interchangeable quantified skillsets. Far from a cog in the machine, an employee is paid to think, problem-solve, devise effective processes and work well in teams with diverse backgrounds and expertise. Higher education can help instill the cultural competency, entrepreneurial initiative, innovation, empathy and collegiality that make life and work more meaningful and career accomplishments more satisfying.
Universities can foster this kind of connection by hosting career fairs and organizing internships, research experiences and other hands-on activities in real-world settings. They can partner with companies for projects that have an immediate impact where both students and faculty can keep up with emerging areas. They can bring business leaders into the classroom for informal networking events to share their experiences and wisdom.
Businesses are vital collaborators for this level of students’ development. Leaders can find creative ways to expand engagement as well. In addition to C-suite executives for campus visits and recruiters for career fairs, company researchers can be involved in classroom projects, and company managers can oversee internships.
The world and the workplace look very different than they did in the past — and they will continue to change. Universities must adapt in order to thrive in this dynamic environment, and close engagement with businesses is essential for success. A college campus is no longer an isolated place where students spend four years before they are handed off to the workforce. Career exploration, preparation and connection are necessary for students, universities, businesses and societies to flourish at their fullest potential, personally and professionally.