The Importance of Creating a Career Vision

Note: For a PDF version of this post, see here.

Inside Higher Ed recently released an article citing preliminary data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which showed that from 2010 to 2011, U.S. postsecondary enrollment dipped for the first time in at least 15 years. Yes, the decline was minuscule (two-tenths of one percent), but in an environment where enrollment growth is key to maintaining budgets, any shortfall is cause for concern. On top of that, University of Phoenix announced a massive 13% enrollment decline, which doesn’t bode too well for the for-profit sector.

Flat or negative enrollment growth now joins retention & completion and labor market outcomes as major issues burdening U.S colleges and universities. Only 50-60% of students actually complete their education, and as of 2012, an estimated 21% of adults (that’s 44 million, 25 and older) have attended some college but have no degree. Even when they do graduate, students aren’t doing much with their degree: 53% of recent grads are still jobless.

Shaky enrollment. Poor completion. Uncertain labor markets. How can our colleges and universities better communicate with students to get them to enroll, complete, and find a solid career?

Assessing the Problem

The primary culprit behind the recent enrollment decline is most likely higher prices and a weak job market.

Students don’t want to walk away from college with poor job prospects, little understanding of which careers are best to pursue, and tons of debt — debt which is apparently still increasing. According to Aaron Renn, writing for NewGeography:

Students and their parents are starting to wise up to the game, and the amount of student loan debt they think appropriate is plummeting. For example, in 2011 only 21% of people felt $20,000 in college debt was too much. Just a year later that percentage increased to 42%. In 2008, 81% of adults thought a college degree was a good investment. In 2012 that had dropped to 57%.  That’s a stunning decline in the number of people who think college is worthwhile, though it might suggest that the problem is less with the value of a degree itself than in how much is paid for it. But there are anecdotes to suggest that some feel college (especially graduate school) isn’t worth what it used to be.

Data-Driven Career Vision

Students need to do a lot more than enroll. They need a lot more than a degree. They need a vision, they need focus, they need to know what they are aiming at and why. Essentially, they should ask: “Does it make sense for me to invest my time and money in this education?” Students must understand the labor market: the performance of occupations, which careers they are personally suited for, and which college programs can best help them achieve their goal. The answers are key to creating and bolstering a strong career vision, which will help them justify enrolling and completing their education.

How can colleges and universities help build this vision? First, they need to establish strong, clear connections between their programs and labor market outcomes (such as high-paying, in-demand jobs). This is especially true for technical programs, which tend to be oriented toward specific occupations (e.g., nursing, computer programming, engineering, medicine). These connections will not only allow schools to make powerful, persuasive cases to students and parents, but will also give schools the competitive advantage over other institutions that can’t articulate the education-to-career trajectory. And if enrollment continues to dip, that competition could get pretty tough.

Start with a data-driven response that integrates solid employment information and captures students’ interest and imagination:

  1. Use labor market outcomes to give students (and their parents) a better grasp on what they can earn vs. what they will spend.
  2. Help them discover which career they should target. Not all jobs are created equal.
  3. Tell students which programs will help them reach that goal, and tell students where alumni are working now.
  4. Provide students with a strong reason for staying enrolled. “If you really want want job X, you really need to finish degree Y.”
  5. Show students and potential students which careers/labor markets are thriving and might be worth their attention while they study.

Career Coach

EMSI provides an application designed specifically for this need. It’s called Career Coach — a simple, straightforward tool customized for the individual college or university and placed on the institution’s website so that students (and potential students) can:

  • Search for real occupations
  • See the current performance of those potential careers (wages, growth, numbers employed and current job postings)
  • Most importantly, understand how occupations relate to the education and training offered by the college or university.

Currently, over 100 U.S. colleges use Career Coach to help students understand the implications of enrolling in different programs, and give them solid local data so they can make smarter career choices.

Career Coach also serves the college’s critical marketing and outreach function. How so? According to Noel-Levitz’s 2012 E-Expectations Report, the quality of the college’s website is crucial to a student’s decision to enroll. Here are two key stats worth knowing:

  • More than 50% of students said the web played a significant role in their decision to apply to a school.
  • Cited by 55% of respondents, difficulty with site navigation was among the greatest challenges encountered with college websites and was the top response by a large margin.

Career Coach is also amazingly easy to access. No more gnarly navigation. It’s all about creating a great user experience for students so they can generate that career vision, which is key as they move through their education and into the labor market.

If you have questions or would like to learn more about Career Coach, please contact Rob Sentz (rob@economicmodeling.com). Here is a list of resources and case studies that relate to Career Coach. We also encourage you to try Career Coach out for yourself at several institutions that have already implemented it for their students:

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