Ready for Work, Ready for Life: The Other Mission of Higher Education

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Career SkillsStudent Success
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Higher education’s purpose, according to the United Nations, is to “enable individuals to expand their knowledge and skills, clearly express their thoughts both orally and in writing, grasp abstract concepts and theories and increase their understanding of the world and their community.” It would be a challenge to find an educator who disagrees with this mission, at its core. Yet, embedded in this definition is a small word that is growing in its importance across the higher education landscape: skills.

Today’s students, pressed by the urgency of a challenging jobs market and eager to realize a strong return on their higher education investment, need to leave their higher education prepared to do. And for that, they need to receive not just a theoretical education, but one that is focused on skills, readiness and connection to the working world. Institutions that embrace a skills-forward mindset aren’t just doing right by their students, though. They also establish a reputation as a leading place to study; one in which learning is dynamic, relevant and connected to the working world.

How can higher education institutions and educators themselves ensure that they are fulfilling this vitally important “shadow” mission of higher education ― giving students the skills they’ll need to transition into their careers? Here are a few ideas:

Embrace work-based learning at every turn

Work-based learning, when it happens alongside formal educational experience, establishes a direct bridge between learning and earning. Students who complete paid internships, for example, end up receiving nearly twice as many job offers as those who don’t. They also earn a higher starting salary.

Faculty can help students understand the wide array of work-based learning options available to them ― including apprenticeships, co-ops, externships, internships, and practicums ― and even show them how to remove any perceived barriers to participation. For example, virtual internships are now widely available, including in sectors where in-person work was once the standard.

Beyond highly structured work experiences, students can benefit from other forms of hands-on learning and workplace insights. Faculty can weave these into the fabric of any course, for example, by assigning case studies and problem-based learning examples, bringing in guest speakers, attending work-site visits, encouraging job shadowing, visiting career fairs, and more. Here are some additional resources.

Talk to employers

One of the best ways to ensure alignment between what’s taught in the classroom and what happens in the workplace is to talk to those who work in the sector. In fact, with some 44% of workers’ skills predicted to be disrupted in the next five years, direct communication with employers is really the only way to be plugged into the rapidly evolving list of skills graduates will need on-the-job.

This kind of interaction can happen by attending career fairs. Professor Rachel Toor of Eastern Washington University shared with Inside Higher Ed that, “…faculty could benefit from specific trainings given by their career centers, like the one I did at Gonzaga, which provides a financial incentive–a $500 grant to the department when faculty incorporate career development programming into their classes, departments and majors. Gonzaga also gives grants to faculty members who bring at least 30 students to career fairs.”

Other ideas? Mapping job competencies to course competencies is a useful starting point. Faculty can check out real-time labor market data for the jobs that are connected to their courses, and learn about the specific skills employers are hiring for, salary information, and entry-level requisites and more. Labor market hubs like Glassdoor or the Burning Glass Institute are great places to start.

Talk about transitions

For many students, higher education represents a time of transition from childhood to adulthood. Leaving college? It can feel scary, jarring or even overwhelming. And, while faculty shouldn’t be expected to play the role of emotional caregiver, there is undeniably a social emotional component to the higher education experience that’s incredibly important. Yet, unfortunately, nearly 40% of students in one survey said college did not help them develop the emotional impact skills needed to make the transition to work. Faculty can help prepare students for their next big leap by talking to them about life in the working world, including topics like employer expectations, labor market adaptability, fair pay and financial obligations, work-life balance, workplace policies, and beyond. These topics can be handled as standalone discussions, or creatively integrated into any number of lessons and work-based learning experiences.


Curious about other ways to incorporate work-based learning to help students prepare for work and life?

Faculty can put students’ skills to the test through replicated work environments, from the medical office to the coding lab. Additionally, our career readiness guide explores ways to prepare students for life beyond college, so they can land the jobs they want post-graduation.