Colleges need to rethink how we prepare students for successful careers. The current approach is to provide some minimal support to students towards the end of their undergraduate years. Once students graduate, colleges and universities traditionally assume that these students are no longer their responsibility and don’t require any further guidance or assistance.
We might start by providing more support to current students. If the goal of college is to unlock students’ potential to be the architect of their lives, shouldn’t a college do everything it can to launch students into a career?
But we also need to realize that most students will need support as recent graduates. In fact, this may be the most important moment when students both need and are ready to accept support. Most colleges are not focused or organized to do this work. But they could be.
Here’s the problem. While many students will successfully launch professionally right out of the gate, some won’t. And even those who do graduate with a good job may quickly realize that the career path they’ve charted is not actually what they want to do with their lives. So they’ll need to pivot. That first career pivot is even more important than getting that first job after college.
In the most successful cases, a recent graduate will hit the right onramp and stay with it. But even these recent graduates will need support as they work toward their first promotion. Again, colleges could provide more support to accelerate that process.
The goal should be to have all our recent graduates fully launched into their lives and careers by their fifth reunion. Why five years out? That’s typically the point where students should have made the first few pivots and learned a lot about themselves.
We have been doing a comprehensive survey of our recent graduates five years post-graduation. There are three takeaways that are worth sharing more broadly:
• Continue to provide direct career support. Recent graduates need help with the job search process, interviewing skills, and networking. They also need more knowledge about how to build early career paths.
• Close skills gaps that are often small but important. This can include basic skills like MS Office and more professional-specific skills that are more technical.
• Help them develop the financial literacy needed to navigate parts of their careers and the intersection of their lives and careers. This ranges from simple questions like how to negotiate the first raise or how to maximize the benefits a company may be offering.
Career services offices aren’t generally set up to provide this kind of post-graduate support. The good news is that it would be easy to retool many of our existing efforts to close a lot of these gaps by doing the following:
• Continue to offer career service programs to recent alumni. Many colleges offer great programs that cover the topics above, but we typically do it for our current students. Often our current students don’t attend because they are not ready yet. With Zoom and other platforms, we could either open our current programs or make other versions available for our recent alumni.
• Retool our alumni relations efforts to focus on recent graduates’ early career success. We need new programs that help recent graduates connect with alumni who can share knowledge and open doors for them. At Denison, we have started something called ReMix. We bring 60-80 alumni back to campus who share a common professional interest. We mix up the generations, and they spend two days sharing ideas, networks and often stories. We mix current students into the event. Our alumni learn a lot from each other, and they find connecting with our current students and recent alumni meaningful and fun.
• Curate programs and platforms that are high quality and affordable. Much of the hard-skills recent graduates need can now be quickly acquired using online resources, but it’s often hard for recent graduates to know where to find them or which online resources are good. Our career service website would serve as a simple one-stop shop to find ways to upskill.
One of the outcomes students expect, and rightfully so, is to successfully launch in their lives and careers after graduation. Taking the extra time in the years after graduation to help them do exactly this, rather than shooing students out the door and wishing them good luck, might just be one of the most important ways that schools can add value to students’ lives.