Career Readiness Becomes ‘Job One’ for Colleges and Universities

Before 2019, the term “Varsity Blues” generally conjured memories of a late-’90s teen movie, starring “Dawson’s Creek” alumnus James Van Der Beek. Now, it’s more likely to be associated with an alleged scheme that allowed the wealthy and the powerful to buy their children’s way into quality U.S. colleges.

Which begs the question: why would so many well-connected people risk jail time to get their kids into an elite university? One reason is because college is worth the money. According to the Social Security Administration, a man who graduates from college with a bachelor’s degree earns $900,000 more in median lifetime earnings than a male high school graduate and a woman with a bachelor’s degree earns $630,000 more.

Moreover, the differential between elite institutions and less highly rated institutions can be significant.  For example, one study pegs a Harvard graduate’s average yearly earnings at $87,200, compared to yearly earnings for a nearby University of Massachusetts grad of just under $46,000.  One study claims a bit more modest gains for elite school graduates- about a 20 percent earnings lifetime differential versus institutions without a competitive admissions policy.

So, any way you slice it, getting a bachelor’s degree pays off.  While student debt stands at a staggering $1.5 trillion, the average student debt load is a bit north of $37,000. So, the return on investment for an individual paying off an average level of debt is equally staggering.

Why are earnings so much higher for college graduates? Some say that it’s about “credentializing”—it’s not what you learn, it’s the piece of parchment itself that makes a college grad more marketable. But the reality is that employers are paying for something, and a lot of what they’re paying for happens on a college campus.

Market pressures have made universities more mindful of the need to make sure that their graduates are job-ready. In fact, speed to the first job and average earnings of graduates in the first five years of their employment are increasingly being integrated into universities’ overall value proposition. Partnerships with local and even national employers, internships through well-connected alumni and opportunities to connect the academic world to the real world through innovations in course curricula are some of the ways that universities are nurturing career readiness. Universities are soliciting employer feedback about what they’re looking for in entry-level employees and as a result, they’re turning out more graduates that are ready to make a contribution on day one of their first job out of school.

Perhaps the most visible example of a university-business partnership is the one struck by Arizona State University with Starbucks, through which Starbucks’ employees can take online ASU courses free, based on available federal aid coupled with company tuition reimbursements.  This enhances Starbucks’ ability to retain quality employees, gives them a way to build their skills and achieve an important credential at no cost and solidifying Starbucks’ status as an employer brand.  The public relations exposure for ASU has enhanced its ability to attract online students and increase enrollment while many other state schools are experiencing declines.

A more localized form of partnership is at my alma mater, Northern Illinois University (NIU), which recently announced a partnership with Discover Financial Services to host an innovation center on NIU’s DeKalb campus coupled with a commitment from Discover to employ interns at the center.   Discover gets highly motivated student employees working on mission-critical assignments, and the students receive rewarding corporate experiences that can jump start their post-graduate careers.

It is not just universities; liberal arts colleges are adding degrees in high growth areas like physical therapy, physicians’ assistants, data analytics and digital marketing. These areas all index higher than average for job potential. Increasingly, liberal arts colleges—many of which are endangered by current demographic trends—are positioning themselves as providers of the best of both worlds: the “soft skills” like critical thinking that make up the DNA of a classical liberal arts education with the pragmatic, well-grounded curricula that lead quickly to employment and a career path.  The key for colleges and universities is communicating in a way that demonstrates to parents and students that they’re going to provide a pragmatic, high-value, job-focused education without looking like they’re converting to technical or vocational schools, another essential route to a rewarding 21st century career path, but fundamental different than a college experience. It means continuing to market the intrinsic merit of a holistic university experience, separate and distinct from the career path that may beckon at the end of that experience.

Marketing and communicating the job-ready benefits of today’s higher education institutions is key to generating applications and ultimately, yielding more students, particularly in times when the economy is strong and enrollment numbers recede. Doing it in a way that preserves what is distinct about the United States’ unparalleled university system and the university experience that is the backbone of a liberal education is an art as well as a science.