As the Executive Director of a multi-university Consortium I get an opportunity to interact with a lot of different folks, doing a myriad of jobs, and with differing impacts on college students. Working with three universities representing over 180,000 students in large metropolitan cities like Miami, Tampa, and Orlando I get to assemble teams of university professionals which include faculty, administrators, community leaders, and student leaders. While the topics and discussions range in subject matter and importance there seems to be a prevailing and ongoing conversation as to the importance of college and its role in a modern society.
And that makes sense. There is a current, national conversation on the role of higher education in our society. Most of it surrounds whether higher education is meant for personal enrichment or vocational training. And this debate seems to be as deep as any political debate in Washington D.C. Case in point; not too long ago I was attending a conference on faculty development of active learning techniques and got into a conversation with a faculty member. This faculty member contended that by focusing on vocational training we are undermining the true meaning of higher education by telling students that college is the pathway to a job. He concluded that when we focus on workforce development we forget inquiry and research and if getting a job was the point then let’s get rid of the traditional academic core and focus only on vocational education.
I responded, “careful what you wish for.” After a bit of banter I finally made, what I feel was my most salient point in the conversation, and that was, even if the student’s goal is not to practice a vocation, all of higher education is vocational training. And I used his career as an example. I responded to him that the fact he is a faculty member is proof that college was the ultimate vocational training program, especially for him. Because ultimately the work he choose to go into was the vocation of teaching and research at a university. I confirmed he was indeed, working for money, and that he would not teach classes, complete research, and such for free. He acknowledged that was true and we enjoyed a beverage and more conversation.
Because it is hard to say college is not vocational training when those of us in higher education used it for vocational training. Besides, even if college is to find yourself and expand your horizons, those vistas will almost always include work in a field that would have been inaccessible without earning a degree and the skill building that comes with it. Besides, even in a world where all higher education is for personal enlightenment it is important we help that student understand what finding themselves means, what they learned from it, and helping them to articulate what they learned and why that was important. Being able to articulate learning and skill sets can equally satisfy an existential search for the meaning of life and getting a good job. They can both coexist with equal measure. To separate the two misses the point.
In 2018 Strada and Gallup released their “Why Higher Ed?” report. Over 86,000 students at 3,000 universities were surveyed and 58% of respondents reported “getting a good job” as their primary motivation for going to college. This was compared with 23% who responded they were attending for “learning and knowledge.” This data alone supports the notion that college, at least as a product, leans toward a vocational outcome. But there is evidence this vocational expectation goes deeper. In another Strada-Gallup Survey 63% of graduates felt college was worth the cost of going to college in terms of their career status even though only 26% of these same respondents said their college work has direct impact on their day to day work. So something has to give here. If college is so valuable but workers are not using the curriculum (at least not in their assessment) then what is the point of college? It seems college is vocational without helping them in their vocation.
Perhaps it is because the act of higher education is vocational and helps students in ways that are mostly unseen. That these deeper meaning reasons the faculty member identified as the reason for going to college are not so crazy after all. That finding yourself is important, but it will also help find yourself in a job. So let’s dig a bit deeper . . . . According to this same collection of Strada-Gallup survey respondents, only 34% of college students graduate feeling prepared for the workforce however nearly 80% of them will be employed within a year of graduation with the remaining majority returning to school for graduate work. So most students seem to find their place.
The answer may lie in the ability for universities and employers to combine the best of higher education and the career world. If we could get industry and faculty to meaningfully connect the core of learning with the core of vocation perhaps we can help students feel more prepared for the workplace and thus ready to go on day one and, as they advance in their career, recognize how higher education continues to help them in their work.
But most students don’t get this kind of career and college information from either side of the aisle. 55% of students make their choice of major or career based on the advice of friends and family as their primary source and not work-based or academically-based sources. This has led to 51% of students reporting they wish they had made some different choices in their college experience. However when college students do receive career mentorship from faculty or receive career guidance from work-based sources they are likely to say that source is the most important.
For example, when career advice comes from work-based sources, 83% of students say this advice has the greatest influence on their career choices and this advice was most helpful. But only 20% of students said they received any advice from work-based sources, meaning 80% of students make their career choices with little to no work-based sources. Conversely, two-thirds of students said they had a career mentor in college and for most of those students the mentor was a faculty member. This seems good but if that mentorship does not result in connecting with work-based information then what’s the point?
The point is we need to connect the dots for our students so that we can show how college is primarily vocational but also transformational and it begins with connecting faculty to employers in a more meaningful way. Last year Adam Peck and I introduced the Cocurricular Career Connections Leadership Model and published it in the NACE Journal. This model acknowledges that for students to get the deeper college meaning and the vocational preparation they need we have to connect the two like a bridge crossing a river. The only way it works is if colleges and employers work together with the vocation of the student in mind.
So, let’s flashback to the conversation with the faculty member. We did not leave that conversation agreeing to disagree. Our conversation ended with the faculty member thinking about how he could integrate more work-based assignments into his curriculum and even had a connection with an engineering firm in Miami who could come in and teach that section. I will have to follow-up and see if it worked out.