Students Care About Outcomes. Do You? | CEO Keys

03/29/16   |  
Steve Fireng

My son is in the process of selecting schools, and I am amazed at how many are not emphasizing what life looks like after graduation. As you can imagine, I have received many updates on how to register and pay tuition … It would have been great if they would talk about careers to incoming students and their families!

This concern is not limited to my family, as outcomes have become a top consideration for most (if not all) prospective students. A recent Inside Higher Ed article discussed the role that employers should play in academics – even asserting that there might be a role for them in the accreditation process. Below, my team and I collected the most frequently asked questions from our conversations with partners about what it looks like when the worlds of higher education and industry work together.

My job is to help students learn. Why is it important for my program to find meaningful ways to incorporate soft skills?

In a recent Brookings survey, 86 percent of students said that getting a better job was very important in their decision to enroll. Yet, a McKinsey & Company report revealed that only 42 percent of employers say students are well prepared for the workplace, and 45 percent say a lack of skills is the main reason for entry-level vacancies. We need to stop campaigning and listen to these employers. It’s a conversation that’s not going away, and the schools that choose to be leaders in communicating graduate outcomes will be the ones that win in the long run.

We’re ready to engage with employers but don’t know how to get to the next level. What role would employers want to play in our programs?

After 25 of years working in higher education, I understand how difficult it can be to find ways to effectively engage employers. But is it really a choice? Students want to be career-ready, and we ought to play a role in making sure they have the basic skills employers need.

Research has been clear that basic soft skills such as teamwork, effective communication and time management are essential in the workplace. Consider launching an advisory group, even if it’s once a semester or once a year, where these valuable stakeholders can provide feedback about challenges they face in hiring new graduates or what roles they struggle to fill. Start with local alumni or employers who most regularly hire from your programs.

How can my program show employers that student learning outcomes are tied to soft skills?

We need to train students on what soft skills are. There should be a balance between providing career-ready skills while integrating soft skills.

A few ideas: Find regular touchpoints to prompt students to interact with the career center – either virtually or in person; train academic advisors to help students spot where they’re developing skills and learn how to articulate them to employers; and consider including a career portfolio in capstone courses.

How can my program build a feedback loop with employers?

Without a strong feedback loop, how do you improve?

Receiving regular feedback from employers is another great reason to form an advisory or executive council. Or pull in experts from your institutional research team, career services team or another group on campus to create a survey for employers who regularly recruit your students.

Organizations such as the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) regularly release excellent benchmarks and reports that you can review to get a broader perspective on what is important to employers when they hire new grads. The key is finding a way to build this loop so as industry changes, we are in step with these changes.

How can I know how well my program is preparing students?

Can you imagine selling a product or service and not caring if it worked or not? To be able to tell prospective students and their families about outcomes, you have to be able to measure them. More and more institutions are issuing a first destination survey or working with organizations that can help them survey graduates to identify where they land.

I have written in the past about this topic. Since then, I have spoken to many schools about the need to focus on career outcomes for their students. You can follow the money to see what a school considers important. Many schools spend significant portions of their budget on marketing, athletics and buildings. Then, when you look at the career prep budget, it’s barely big enough to be a line item. It’s time to stop speaking about the importance of career outcomes and put your money where your mouth is.

Are there other questions you’d like answers to? Continue the outcomes conversation with me on Twitter @KeypathEDU. 

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