The Big Disconnect Between College and Career

The Big Disconnect Between College and Career

Students and parents want a college education to lead to a better job. Recent surveys from Inside Higher Ed and Gallup suggest that almost all college presidents and senior academic officers agree with them.

Sadly, however, there is a big disconnect between the perception of higher education and the perception of employers when it comes to the employability of new college grads. Colleges and universities think they’re already doing a good job of preparing students for the job search. Fewer than a third of employers concur.

And, according to a 2012 survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace, only 16% of employers considered applicants to be “very prepared” with the knowledge and skills they would need for the job.

How could colleges and universities think they are preparing students well, while employers pan their efforts? What could be the cause for this disconnect?

Why is there a disconnect between college and career?

• First, many academic leaders—particularly in institutions with a broad focus on the liberal arts—fear that paying more attention to the career needs of students will be the first step on a slippery slope to “vocationalism” and a less academic approach to education.

• Second, most of those who are currently in senior academic leadership positions graduated at a time when the rules governing how to find a job were much clearer—and stresses of loan repayment less onerous. They may not know what it takes to be successful in the modern job search or for what they can hold a Career Services office accountable.

• Third, few colleges and universities are aware of new integrated models of career preparation, which use a “Career Community” concept to broaden opportunities and advising. These models encourage students to reflect and build on their learning in and outside the classroom from the first year on. They also ensure the involvement of alumni, parents and employers, helping students connect the dots between their talents, interests and opportunities.

Engaging Career Centers in institutional plans for career preparation

Possibly the biggest reason for the disconnect between career preparation rhetoric and reality was revealed in a recent session on career preparation at the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ annual conference. Not once during the presentation was there any mention of university career services offices.

In fact, career center leaders and senior administrators rarely, if ever, come together to strategize about how an institution can create a comprehensive plan to improve career preparation and graduate career outcomes. Rare is the institution like Augustana College (Rock Island, IL), that views the enhancement of career and graduate school success as a key institutional priority, and engaged all interested Augustana faculty and staff in its planning process.

At many colleges and universities, the Career Center is perceived as nothing more than the place where students go to get their resumes and cover letters critiqued. While many career services offices are excellent, it is true that others have changed little in the past few decades, employing a more operational than strategic approach to their work.

But things are changing in the careers world: A new breed of career director is emerging who understands both the work world and the academic world, and is committed to bringing the two together for the benefit of students.

Higher education should be able to trust Career Centers to orchestrate institutional career initiatives, and accept accountability for results.

Impact of the recession on institutional responsibility for career preparation

At the beginning of the most recent recession, few realized the employment impact would last as long as it has: For the past five years, the unemployment rate for 20-24 year old bachelor’s degree graduates has decreased by only a percentage point—from just over 9% to 8%. At the same time, over a third of young college grads are believed to be mal-employed—employed either part-time or in jobs that do not require a college degree.

Parents worry about their sons and daughters not getting jobs commensurate with their college education. They also worry about the rising cost of higher education. It now costs an average of almost $40,000 a year to attend a private college—a rate that has risen 2.3% a year above the rate of inflation for the past decade.

Given unemployment rates and the cost of college, there is no reason to believe college students and their families will cease their concerns about employment prospects any time soon, and every reason to believe that the college that does nothing will lose good potential applicants.

Instituting an integrated approach

Students clearly need help transitioning from college to career. Our current system is not working, and senior administrators in colleges and universities must play a much greater role in ensuring that students are prepared.

But, career preparation is not something that happens overnight, or in a senior year counseling session at the Career Center. It is part of a process that begins with exploration in the first year, and ends after the student has found success in her bid for a job, fellowship, or a place on a post-graduate course.

And, responsibility for improving career preparation cannot be solely the responsibility of either the academic side of the house, or the Career Center. It requires all those with a stake in student success to work together.

What we need is an integrated approach to helping students develop the skills, characteristics and knowledge that will change employers’ minds about the potential of our students, and make graduates job ready on day one. This doesn’t mean changing the nature of education; it just means being more intentional about connecting the dots for students between college and career.

Now is the time for organizations like AAC&U, NASPA and NACE to step up to the plate and lead a national conversation with higher education leaders and Career Centers about their roles and responsibilities in preparing students for the next stage of their lives.

We owe it to our students and graduates.


  1. Sheila:

    Thank you for providing a comprehensive and cogent analysis of one of the most pressing issues for higher education. I would add to your analysis that generational differences concerning the nature and value of work and a rapidly shifting global economy which has significant and long-term implications for the U.S labor market are factors exacerbating the circumstances you describe.

    Concerning the disconnect between college and career I think it’s important to note that this is most often the case at certain institutions preparing their students in certain disciplines. What you describe is much less the case – some might even say the opposite of what you describe – when it comes to institutions that develop STEM talent in fields such as engineering and computing, or prepare graduates for the business or health professions. These institutions are often models for the integration of institutional leadership, career services, and employer partners.

    When scoping the challenge in this more focused way, the potential strategies come into clearer focus. NACE has done a very fine job of helping members articulate the value proposition for career services and has grown in influence among senior university leaders by promulgating professional standards and principles of practice. Clearly the latest initiatives in advocacy and, as you are aware through your participation, the development of national first destination assessment standards should only extend that influence. I say this as a way of affirming that “the time is right” for additional steps to be taken. NACE has had any number of internal discussions in the past concerning strategies to more closely engage vice presidents of student affairs and other senior administrators. In conjunction with NASPA and AAC&U, NACE could offer a one day seminar focused on senior student affairs leaders concerning the importance of connecting the institution with the world of work and highlight the many best practices that members institutions can describe. This initial effort coupled with follow up activities and focused content should greatly in crease the opportunities to bridge that “disconnect”.

  2. Jerry Houser says:

    Fear is THE driving force for most of the concern about the ROI of a college degree. Parents are afraid their kids won’t get a decent job and then move back home. Colleges fear a downturn in applicants. Faculty are afraid their majors will be in decline. Students are afraid they can’t pay back their loans. Colleges are afraid of the rankings they now face. Students are afraid of the real world. And to all of this I say…”Thank you, it’s about time!”

    Finally, colleges are wondering how can we get our graduates to be more successful? The answer is simple: REQUIRE students to do career planning. Each school can get it done in their own way, but until you build it in to the structure of a college degree nothing will change. It has to come from the top down, it has to be institutionalized, and it has to be mandated just like the general education requirements.

    Thanks Sheila for exploring new paradigms and models through articles like this one. It will be interesting to see the ways universities respond. Solutions will be politically and emotionally driven which will result in some interesting programs. Keep up the great work.

    Good comments Manny. You are always full of good thinking.


  3. Sean McCobb says:

    I think the real underlying issue here is student loans. Too many people are getting college educations, and therefor too many people are expecting college grad jobs at a quatity that does not exist. The cost of a college education is increasing so dramatically because the “invisible hand of the market” wants fewer people to have these degrees. A growing number of people are able to get degrees because of our students loan system. Supply of college educated individuals is significantly higher then demand. This gap between supply and demand allows organizations hiring new college grads to pay less be more particular about the specifications of their product. This would be fine if the cost of education decreased at a rate equal to the decrease in payment, but because federal loans exist how they do this isn’t happening. I think the opportunity is there for colleges to educate students in ways more akin to the needs of business, but what are the ways? There are over 25 million corporations in the United States. How can a university provide students that satisfy all of them.

    If we want education to work this is what needs to happen:

    Schools need to pair up with businesses. Businesses need to provide an “order” five years in advance for the workforce they will be hiring. Schools then admit that number of students. Business choose the students that will be working for them before the education starts and then design the education plan of their future employees. Students take the courses their “sponsoring” organization lays out for them. The employers pay for the education.

    I don’t think this will ever happen. What can happen is that universities educate students in a general way so that they will be applicable to the most businesses. The cost of education relates to a 5 year out speculations on entry level wages. loans are only provided when the number of students entering higher education is less then what is being predicted will be necessary 4 years down the road. Businesses have to deal with the fact that they are going to have to actually train their new employees in the particulars of their business model. Supply of college educated students will decrease, it will be easier for this group to find employment, entry-level pay will increase, and ability to pay off loans will increase.


  4. Shane Watson says:

    Nice informative blog and nicely highlighting the disconnect between college and career.

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