As rising tuition and the uncertain job market pressure families to spend their college savings wisely—and to even question the value of such spending—colleges and universities are more likely to be evaluated based on their return on investment. It is not just academic quality and prestige that today’s prospective students look for. They also demand a proven track record of graduate school admissions, job placements, and earning potential in relation to the overall cost of enrollment.
Institutions have struggled to illustrate their value in these challenging economic times. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 86 percent of Americans still believe college is a good investment, yet 57 percent feel it does not provide a good value for the money and 75 percent say it is too expensive.
Amid this harsh reality, higher ed leaders need to create a culture centered on nurturing students’ post-graduation success and make a strong case for the real-world value of their degrees. This approach is not just about strengthening institutions’ career services functions. It extends to activities in the classroom and off campus, such as alumni engagement, branding to employers, and changes in student attitude. A culture focused on graduate outcomes also involves instilling a sense of institution-wide responsibility for graduates’ success in the marketplace.
We have spoken with officials, faculty, and career development administrators at many institutions across the country, solicited feedback from leading employers, and formally surveyed thousands of graduates and employers. Here are seven key recommendations that emerged:
1. Ensure student success through an “it takes a village” approach. Post-graduation success is everyone’s responsibility, not just the career development department’s. Each unit at the college—from academics and experiential learning to alumni services and development—needs to define its role in students’ career development and “own” its share of the institution’s post-graduate achievement goals.
A well-developed curriculum and an effective career services function are critical success factors. However, so is the sense of shared ownership of graduate outcomes across the organization. Institutions must break down silos by designing organizational structures and incentives that facilitate collaboration (e.g., data and contact sharing) across all parts of the university.
2. Own your backyard. Understand and cater to the economic centers near your campus. The local community has strong ties with your students and can be their staunchest advocate. Analyze the nearby economic hubs and the competitive environment, and align your career development efforts to meet the community’s employment and experiential learning opportunities. Be aware of the unique industries in your region—and seek ways your curriculum and career programs may cater to local and regional employers’ needs. Consider investing in your employer relations team. Maintaining relationships with key employers is critical to successful career placement.
3. Build cost-effective partnerships with key recruiting companies. Due to shrinking recruiting funds, many employers skip traditional career fairs. Instead, they now choose to recruit from a handful of select academic institutions that offer cost-effective ways for companies to engage with students. Make sure your institution develops strong, high-touch partnerships that help employers interact with students in a variety of low-cost, but effective ways, such as guest instruction and mentoring.
4. Bring the real world into the classroom and vice versa. While faculty are commonly prepared to support students interested in moving on to graduate education, they are less comfortable assisting students who plan to seek employment. Develop ways for faculty to gain industry exposure and relationships so they can integrate elements relevant to current employer needs into their curriculum. Work closely with faculty to develop meaningful experiential learning opportunities for your student. Internships and relevant employment experiences can sometimes be the differentiator that students need to get the job they want.
5. Think about students’ futures from day one. Beginning to look for a job or graduate school program senior year is too late. We recommend instituting structured career counseling early on and establishing a graduate-outcomes mindset that underscores the urgency and importance of student focus from day one. Integrate academic and career counseling to help students shape their approach to their college experience in ways that would enable a successful post-graduate career. For example, rather than helping students select courses that just satisfy graduation requirements, advisors should guide them toward courses and experiential learning opportunities that are also uniquely relevant to their own career goals.
6. Bridge the gap between hard skills and workplace expectations. Are students getting the education employers are looking for? Are their skills and knowledge valued by the industry?
While employers rely on objective measures such as GPA to evaluate students’ technical capabilities, they tend to focus most of their attention on assessing soft skills such as work ethic, teamwork, industry knowledge, communication, writing, and critical thinking. These are the differentiating factors in hiring decisions. Consider implementing feedback loops between your institution and partner employers to gain insights on their view of students’ capabilities relative to the skills companies need.
7. Leverage young alumni, as they make the best advocates. Recent graduates are the most current “data points” employers use to evaluate your institution and the educational value you provide. The workplace performance of recently hired graduates and their enthusiasm toward their alma mater are key determinants of continued employer engagement with a university. Young alumni also tend to be very enthusiastic advocates for their school because they feel closely invested in the success of graduating students.
Although not always able to offer significant financial support, young alumni are a treasure trove of talented resources, often eager to contribute to the well-
being of their institution through mentoring and other non-economic means. (As with all alumni, but particularly young alumni, outreach should involve more than a monetary “ask.”)
As prospective students weigh their options based on what happens after they receive their degrees, the value that colleges and universities provide to graduates is no longer based solely on academics. In an increasingly competitive market, higher ed institutions must take responsibility for the post-graduate outcomes of their students and build capabilities that enable them to have successful careers.