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Bridging the Gap Between Curriculum and Career

Students don’t graduate for many reasons, but one critical reason--within an institution’s power to change--is that students don’t see a connection between their studies and a possible career. Way too often higher education relegates career preparation to select majors, separate classes, and special offices on campus.  But breaking down these barriers helps all students succeed.

Unfortunately, many campuses have created an artificial and increasingly damaging divide between subject-matter learning in the classroom and learning designated as career-relevant. In part, this divide has arisen because “career-ready” has become a false synonym for technical learning or skills, rather than the development of skills most often associated with successful undergraduate teaching, such as oral and written communication, complex problem solving, the ability to work with those from diverse backgrounds, ethical decision making, and creativity. Fortunately, most faculty (69%) report that they see part of their role as preparing students for employment.  But many faculty need better opportunities to do so, as well as professional development to provide them the tools to help students explicitly draw connections between subject-matter content and transferable career skills.

One successful way to draw these connections is through High Impact Practices (HIPs), such as internships, undergraduate research, and first-year seminars.  These experiential opportunities forge connections between in- and out-of-classroom learning, foster relationships between students and faculty, and help students express their learning in terms of transferable skills. Through a problem-centered, applied approach to learning, HIPs enable students to demonstrate and apply their knowledge in real-world situations--something that 87 percent of hiring managers report is critical for success.  Students who participate in HIPs develop skills such as critical thinking, writing, and appreciation for diversity, which are skills that colleges value and employers consistently say new graduates need to succeed.  In fact, recent research has shown that participating in HIPs is a statistically significant predictor of early job attainment. And career success not only affects students personally, it also has been shown to have an impact on alumni giving.  HIPs are among a campus’ most powerful tools because they connect these previously disparate dots.

While HIPs have been a part of colleges and universities for decades, they often exist as isolated pockets of excellence. This opportunity gap has a disproportionate impact on students of color. Only 18 percent of African American and Latinx students reported doing research with a faculty member, compared to 24 percent of white students. And while 51 percent of white seniors report completing an internship, only 40 percent of African American and 41 percent of Latinx students did so (all according to 2019 NSSE results). Internships and research with faculty are two HIPs with the highest correlation to post-graduation success, so the lower numbers of participation in these activities among students of color is especially troubling.

Existing educational and economic divides have been further heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.  In May 2020, the Center for Education and the Workforce reported that workers without a college credential accounted for 46 percent of job losses and Black and Latinx workers were disproportionately affected by job losses.  Despite evidence HIPs can reduce equity gaps, in the current financial climate, some institutions will reduce efforts to scale HIPs to cut costs.  But this would be short-sighted for two major reasons.  

First, now, more than ever, higher education must ensure that equity gaps do not widen and that all students are prepared to be successful and adaptive after graduation.  HIPs, with their power to close equity gaps and prepare students for careers, are valuable instruments of social change.

Second, scaling HIPs often proves to be financially prudent, as HIPs lead to increased retention and graduation rates, which are both significant drivers of an institutions’ fiscal health.  On average, the more HIPs a student completes, the more likely s/he is to earn a baccalaureate degree within six years.  At the same time, students who do not complete their degrees report not seeing a connection between their studies and possible career--one of the primary outcomes of well-executed HIPs.

The goal of the curriculum should be to cultivate sustainable and lasting modes of thinking, methods of problem solving, and means of approaching information.  It is time to reconsider all learning as career-ready learning by better connecting subject-matter content to lifelong skill development.  High-quality, equitable HIPs done at scale are among the most powerful tools to do so.  

Claire E. Jacobson, Ph.D, is vice president, campus strategy, for Student Opportunity Center

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