In my previous article with AI (“4 Things Academic Deans Can Do to Help Students Succeed After Graduation,” in August 2015), I offered advice on how academic deans and career professionals can collaborate to improve student career mentoring. In this follow-up article, I would like to offer four curricular strategies that can immediately improve student career prospects, by connecting more clearly what a student studies and what they aspire to do after college.
Four strategies to make this happen:
- Work directly with admissions to break the myth that specific majors need to be tied to specific jobs.
- Design majors that are internally flexible and externally connectable in ways that allow students to explore their interests and graduate in four years.
- Design minors that connect to as many majors as possible and offer versatile career skills.
- Create internship and employer relations programs that connect curricula to potential employers.
1. Work directly with admissions to break the myth that specific majors lead to specific jobs.
I have often found myself speaking to groups of prospective students and their parents immediately after an admissions director has literally drawn lines between specific majors and particular jobs. “If you want to be an A you should consider majoring in X,” s/he would exclaim, much to my chagrin. Parents especially like this equation, while students who are often not sure of what ‘they want to be’ usually find it uncomfortable.
My subsequent presentation forcefully (and politely) breaks this myth by focusing on three simple notions:
- With the exception of pre-professional fields such as accounting and engineering, majors are largely irrelevant to employers. The professional world seeks talented graduates who have basic communicative skills, literacy and numeracy, and a demonstrated work ethic that includes the ability to lead and participate in teamwork.
- Parents should be assured that their children will learn better if they are studying something they enjoy and relates to their career aspirations.
- It is essential for students to be able to career-shift because of the changing economic, technological and social world they are facing.
WHAT TO DO:
Develop a small team that includes an academic dean, an admissions director and a career services director to build a flexible career development presentation that assures students and their parents that career development and academic study mutually reinforce each other. This is a real opportunity to portray the distinctiveness of your university’s mission along with a realistic four-year vision. If possible, include alumni who can articulate how this program worked for them.
2. Design flexible and complementary majors.
Students today are increasingly exploring their interests by moving vertically within a major. Many double major or compile minors to meet their career aspirations. They are doing this in order to coordinate their life-long interests with the academic knowledge and skills available in the curriculum. Unfortunately, most university curricula are designed vertically with insular (non-connectable) majors and therefore are not flexible enough to allow for this exploration without delaying graduation. As a result, the national average for 4-year graduation is less than 50% and 6 -year rates of around 60% – rates that seriously delay and damage student career prospects.
WHAT TO DO:
Curricular inflexibility needs to be confronted at several levels. First, strong leadership from the President on down must support a flexible faculty rewards structure. If the President supports faculty development in areas such as team teaching, learning communities, and project-based learning, there are many creative ways that departments can empower students to follow their interests through the curriculum — rather than allowing curricula to constrain the pathways students must follow.
There are many curricular tactics that can free faculty creativity, such as: minimizing course prerequisites; accepting course equivalents from departments outside a student’s major; finding partner disciplines to offer efficient double majors; and opening curricula to external partnerships.
3. Design minors that attach to as many majors as possible.
Minors are an excellent way to follow the intellectual pathways of students. Minors can be comprised of a coherent piece of a traditional major or an integrated combination of courses from 2 or more disciplines. The key to effective minors in either case is to design them as connectors between disciplines.
Let me elaborate on two particularly powerful, versatile examples of such minors: business and world language studies.
Students of any major can greatly benefit from an understanding of marketing, fiscal management, and entrepreneurship. But more than this, business minors can include applied business courses (taught from outside the business school) that can also enhance business majors. Digital marketing might be taught out of the music faculty, while business communication might be taught out of the communication faculty. These kinds of connections and collaboration mirror the reality of the professional world.
Likewise, the study of a second language always enhances a student’s education and career potential. Minoring in Spanish brings any student’s resume toward the top of the prospective CV pile, no matter the major. Prospective employers across economic sectors tremendously value the cross-cultural and language skills of bilingual graduates.
WHAT TO DO:
- Advise incoming students to continue their high school language studies throughout their college careers. This language study needs to meet either a major or general education requirement.
- Initiate and promote a business minor for non-business majors. This minor needs to be created together by liberal arts and business faculty in order to build in the appropriate skills at the appropriate levels for a wide variety of majors.
- Dedicate a retreat to the development of minors that both broaden student learning and facilitate timely graduation for students who take on one or even multiple minors. It is especially important to emphasize an open minor model that maximizes connections with majors and other minors.
4. Create relationships between the university and employers that support both a strong internship program and multiple channels of communication.
That internships should be recommended if not required goes without saying in today’s competitive world. But what is not as well understood is how to structure internships so that they bridge the gap between college study and entry-level professional life.
Working with employers to develop more effective internships is a small but crucial part of the relationship universities and employers need to build. Most academics and career services professionals focus on career fairs, alumni panels and networking events. All of these forms of career programming are inherently limited:
- Career fairs often focus on clusters of majors, who meet in unstructured conversations with possible employers.
- Alumni panels are even more narrowly based, and usually bring alumni a few times a year to tell their employment story.
- Networking events combine these two — but usually with little follow up.
All of these events are transactional; employers exchange information, handshakes, business cards. What these events need to be is relational.
For example, from the start, students need to be developing relationships with potential internship providers. Even more importantly (because it is usually not nearly as often thought of), employers need to develop ongoing and formal relationships with universities so that they can treat students as a talent pool that can be developed over the course of four or (if you count the prospective year) five years.
Large universities often formalize such relationships in terms of access to students. An employer may visit a certain class or set of classes twice a year and participate more broadly in a career fair once or twice a year. An employer may even focus on a particular class, even to the extent of providing software and hardware particular to specific research. The point is that the university/student/employer communication needs to be based on an ongoing relationship, not a list of independent transactions.
WHAT TO DO:
- Develop a formal employer access program with a fee/rate structure for the school. Prospective employers can then pay a fee for a specified program of access. Access levels may progress, for example, from attending career fairs, to class visitation, to making annual presentations to groups of students, to annual meetings with faculty and mentors, to screening of students as prospective employees. The hope is that employers who may begin at the lower end of access will move up the scale to increased access.
- Invite prospective employers to meet with intern groups (or classes).
- Allow students to take internships through other departments and divisions. This could involve, for example, interning in the finance division, or in a center for the arts.
Although I have stressed the academic side of curricular flexibility, collaborative work in the area of curricular reform holds the keys to sustainable student academic success and sustainable university business models. Curricula that are based on connective majors, minors, and employee access encourage 4-year (or even shorter) graduation.
When I discuss with colleagues why it is both our moral and financial responsibility to increase student graduation rates, they often raise the issue of students changing majors. My response to this issue is not what faculty and administrators expect or want to hear, but it sums up my argument: Why would we expect otherwise from groups of 18-year-olds, especially during this time of change? Our job is to deal with this reality, not avoid it, by building curricula that take changes of major into account in ways that do not delay graduation. This flexibility leads to increased learning effectiveness and financial efficiency, which should lead to university cost containment and decreased student cost burden.