With new questions about career preparation and purpose, this year’s National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) results reveal key insights around empowering students to connect their field of study to career aspirations throughout their collegiate matriculation.
NSSE’s findings – based on responses from students attending nearly 500 four-year institutions in the U.S. – found that 93 percent of seniors believed that their learning was relevant to their career paths. At historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), where preparing incoming students for lifelong learning and future employment “remains a high priority,” researchers found that students attending these institutions reported higher confidence in their career plans and took advantage of more career preparation resources than Black peers at predominantly White institutions (PWIs).
“What’s amazing is how much more confident students are about where they’re headed. It’s inspiring,” said Dr. Jillian Kinzie, associate director of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research and the NSSE Institute. On the part of institutions and employers, “there has been greater acknowledgement that there are a variety of majors that can prepare one to be successful in a variety of careers.”
The NSSE survey focuses on first-year students and seniors because first-year students have just enough experience to render judgement about their experience and seniors are a little bit more reflective as they prepare to graduate, Kinzie said.
Pointing out an emerging movement in higher education where students are now encouraged to show a Comprehensive Learner Record, Kinzie added that students are gaining more experience in articulating “essential employability skills” that they’ve developed through courses, assignments, internships and other experiences.
Additional NSSE survey findings include:
-Three in five seniors interviewed or shadowed a professional in the field, while about half attended a talk or panel discussion about careers;
-Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) faculty who teach lower-division students at HBCUs discussed careers with students more often than their PWI counterparts did;
-Nearly 90 percent of seniors believed what they were learning in college was relevant to their career plans, with a modest difference favoring majors in professional fields compared to arts and sciences majors;
-Arts and science majors were notably less likely than others to say their career goals had remained the same since beginning college, and they also expressed somewhat lower confidence than other majors in their career plans;
-Seniors’ beliefs about how much their college experience helped them develop career-related skills differed by major.
Compared to Black PWI students, NSSE responses of first-year students at seven HBCUs showed that these students spoke of career interests with family, peers, faculty and career services staff at higher rates; attended more career fairs, career-related talks or panel discussions; and were more likely to have interviewed or shadowed working professionals, “which is noteworthy given how distant graduation is for these students,” the survey said.
“If anything, I think these results should be a little bit of a motivator for PWIs who are trying to serve their African-American students equitably,” Kinzie said.
“The NSSE data demonstrates that there are lessons to be learned from HBCUs about how to take a comprehensive campus approach” to introduce majors and careers to students starting from the time they step on campus to the time they graduate, said Dr. Brian K. Bridges, vice president of research and member engagement at the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).
Bridges said that the NSSE outcomes validate existing research tying the historic mission and relevance of HBCUs to the fact that they are “going above and beyond what is expected of them” to prepare students for the modern day of work. HBCUs over the decades have moved from an access agenda, to a completion agenda, and now to an agenda that focuses on students’ employability and connections to the workforce, Bridges added.
Part of this work is bolstered by UNCF’s Career Pathways Initiative (CPI) which includes 24 HBCUs and one predominantly Black institution. The initiative helps the institutions create environments on campus to structure curriculum, co-curricular activities and other learning experiences to best prepare students for post-graduation. Some participating institutions have also formed “clusters of innovation” to learn and share best practices for making students career-ready.
“While some best practices are driven by CPI, others institutions are also seeing a return on investment in ensuring that students are employable,” Bridges said.
While there are highly visible HBCUs, lesser known HBCUs have a purpose, too, Bridges said, because these schools are also willing to give students an opportunity to succeed. “Those institutions all play a role in our higher education enterprise,” he said.
He hopes that policymakers takeaway from this year’s survey results how employable HBCU students are, how HBCUs can serve as a model for how PWIs deliver career preparation services and that HBCUs are delivering significant outcomes despite their history of lower resources.
“Imagine if they had adequate or more resources compared to some other institutions,” Bridges said.
Using NSSE’s annual survey results and other data provides an opportunity for colleges and universities to raise questions about how to increase accessibility and participation in experiences that further drive students’ career preparation – especially underrepresented students, Kinzie said. She added that sometimes, institutions may have unintentional policies that limit or prevent certain students from taking advantage of high-impact experiences linked to career preparation.
These high-impact practices include service-learning opportunities, learning communities, conducting research with faculty, an internship or field experience, study abroad and a culminating experience like a senior capstone project.
In the case of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the institution reviewed data on student participation in internships to further conversations about the definitions of internships across majors, such as who qualifies, who participates and how students connect their experiential learning to their professional development, the survey said.
And at Westmont College, a small, private institution, leaders analyzed NSSE data and worked to improve student-faculty interaction through a “take a professor to lunch” initiative or by having 25 faculty members host about 15 to 20 new students in their home as part of the New Student Orientation experience.
“Those are questions that everyone can ask about their experience,” Kinzie said.
She encouraged institutions to consider that there are some students getting more exposure to internships and other high-impact practices than other students relative to race or first-generation status, for example. This finding raises an opportunity for faculty to integrate more work-based assignments or employer projects into their courses or for institutions to offer “micro-internships” where students shadow professionals or complete a project-based learning experience over a break, Kinzie suggested.
“It’s kind of a real win-win,” she said of engaging students earlier and in meaningful ways that allow them to scaffold workforce skills. “Why are we waiting until upper division to do that?”
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.