By Lorenzo L. Esters, Senior Program Director, USA Funds
During the past year, I have been working with leaders of higher education institutions and their associations to explore innovative new approaches to promoting student success and career readiness. New technologies, processes and partnerships hold the promise of more effective and affordable delivery of higher education, tied to the demands of the workforce, so graduates are more likely to connect to employment and ultimately careers relevant to the skills they acquired while on campus.
Looking forward to the new year, I believe there are five critical steps that college leaders can take to enhance their students’ program completion rates as well as their prospects for success in their careers and their personal lives following graduation:
1. Survey your alumni on the value and outcomes of their higher education experience. The best companies regularly survey their customers about their experiences with the company’s services. Higher education institutions can learn a great deal by surveying their graduates both about their experiences while on campus and about the outcomes of those experiences, including their graduates’ employment, earnings and personal well-being. College leaders can use this information in a variety of ways, from retooling student support services to assessing academic program quality. Useful questions to ask your alumni cover topics such as:
- The faculty and staff support they received.
- Their participation in internships, research projects and extracurricular activities while on campus.
- The economic returns from their education.
- Their sense of engagement in their work and their community, as well as their health and general well-being.
2. Work closely with employers to ensure your graduates are equipped with skills and competencies needed in the workforce. College leaders need to think beyond merely involving employers in an advisory capacity. Sophisticated businesses are coming to recognize educators as just another one of the business’ critical suppliers — in this case, suppliers of talent. College leaders need to think of their institutions in that supplier capacity. Postsecondary institutions that fail to equip their graduates with the skills and competencies that employers need risk being left off employer lists of preferred education providers. Moreover, employer opinions of college programs is one of the factors that prospective students consider in selecting a college.
3. Expose students to real-world work experience throughout their years on campus. Students who are exposed to the world of work during their education have better prospects for employment, and employers typically prefer hiring graduates with relevant work experience. Supporting a robust array of internships, cooperative education, experiential learning and school-to-work transition programs can help connect your graduates to rewarding careers that leverage the valuable education experiences your institution provided them.
4. Infuse innovation into your academic and student support services to reduce time to completion and ensure students’ career readiness. Information technology tools and new modes of delivering education programs offer opportunities to improve the service you deliver to your students. Competency-based and adaptive learning models meet students where their current knowledge and skills lie and take them to mastery of the subject at their individual pace. Consider retooling components of your education program that are critical to completion, such as your students’ first-year experience.
5. Ensure that all students — especially lower-income and first-generation students — benefit from your student success and career readiness initiatives. One of the greatest challenges facing higher education is the unequal results achieved by lower-income and minority students, whose average academic achievement levels and completion rates continue to lag behind those of their classmates. As your institution works to enhance the success of all students, it’s important that your initiatives also benefit these segments of the student population.
Those who deliver postsecondary education or training have a weighty responsibility for enhancing the success not only of the individuals they serve, but also the communities and economies that depend on the vision and talents of those graduates. But as one college president has said, “What better work can there be than changing lives through education?”
I wish all of my colleagues who work to change lives through education great success in 2016.