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Essential Transition

July/August 2014

By Karla Hignite

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Exploring the college-to-career connection

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

That simple question, asked of young children by well-intentioned adults, is meant to inspire thoughts of a world wide open to possibilities unexplored, no matter whether the response is “firefighter,” “teacher,” “molecular biologist,” or “Spider-Man.” Yet, for the many who don’t know or haven’t thought about vocation beyond the playground, that question can nag in later years when a more focused series of queries emerges: “What do you plan to study in college?”; “What kind of job are you looking for?”; and “Where do you see yourself in five years?” 

The transition from classroom to career—a milestone achievement—can be a frightening and frustrating process for many students anxious about their postgraduation prospects. A still-slow-to-heal economy and the reality of looming student loan debt only punctuate pressures many students feel today to get a job. 

While colleges and universities have never been in the business of guaranteeing career success, increased scrutiny has emerged in recent years from policy makers and parents alike seeking assurance that graduates will land gainful employment in their fields of study. Mounting pressure to chart progress in this arena has recast the higher education value proposition once again to encompass helping students navigate the college-to-work connection. 

Higher education has always focused on the implicit link between studies and vocation. After all, what is the underlying purpose of exposing students to myriad opportunities to hone their skills and expand their knowledge horizons if not to ready the next generation of educated citizens to lead and contribute to a prosperous democracy? This fundamental goal hasn’t changed. Yet, even as colleges and universities remain true to their mission of preparing students to engage life beyond the learning laboratory, a newer role for higher education leadership is to make explicit the intrinsic value of collaboration, analytical thinking, and strong communication skills—among the softer outcomes of an effective postsecondary education that are prized by employers across all industries and sectors. 

Making the case for college must include convincing an often- skeptical public that higher learning prepares individuals not only for the right job in the dream career, but for the many jobs and multiple careers that the current generation of students will explore in their lifetimes. Helping students identify and pursue experiences that set them on a successful and fulfilling career trajectory is likewise getting enhanced attention on campuses across the country. 

Through expanded and increasingly sophisticated career services offerings, today’s students have at their disposal a much wider range of opportunities for gaining professional experience and building relationships with prospective employers. Sharpened minds and employable skills represent the new norm for what graduates expect and what colleges and universities must deliver.

What follows in two related articles are examples of how higher education institutions are approaching this dual and complementary effort to infuse the curriculum with practical work-related experiences and to guide students in the art of translating and applying their academic expertise to any number of employment options that await them. 

KARLA HIGNITE, Ogden, Utah, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

See also the companion articles, Powering Up the Mind and Commencing the Career.