Recent Strada research points to a striking disparity between first-year students’ aspirations for career planning in their undergraduate years and seniors’ actual experiences. Seventy percent of first-year students, for instance, plan to network with alumni or a professional in their field, but just 27 percent of seniors report having engaged in that experience.

“We have to find ways to integrate these types of activities so we aren’t having to refer students to them,” said Farouk Dey, vice provost of integrative learning and life design at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s just what they get from admissions to graduation.”

College students who spend time on career prep as undergraduates — particularly building professional networks and social capital — report greater confidence in their workplace skills and clarity in their career plans, the research shows. Yet this study — a collaboration with the National Survey of Student Engagement administered in spring 2021 to 55,277 students at 91 U.S. colleges and universities — also found that while most first-year students intend to participate in a range of career-building activities, fewer seniors report having gained those experiences.

The survey findings, released in December, also reveal how improving the connection between college and career can help bridge the equity gap. First-generation college students, the research shows, are less likely to participate in social capital-building activities and internships, two experiences linked to higher confidence in workplace skills.

Dey joined researchers Jillian Kinzie, associate director of the Center for Postsecondary Research and the National Survey of Student Engagement Institute at Indiana University, and Dave Clayton, Strada senior vice president for research, in a webinar conversation about the findings. They discussed how colleges and universities can better integrate a connection to careers into their work, and which career-related experiences the research points to as most valuable to students.

Among the panelists’ recommendations for colleges and universities hoping to build better connections between education and work:

Integrate work-related experiences into college experience to alleviate the “opt-in” nature of career services.

Kinzie noted a reassuring finding from the research: Students have confidence that what they are learning in the classroom will help them in their careers. But while students feel confident about the relevance of their education, Kinzie said, “it’s clear they’re not necessarily taking advantage of all of the services and things that we set up for them because … it’s a largely opt-in opportunity.”

That philosophy reserves career-related college opportunities for only the most proactive students. “To me it really points to the importance of doing a better job of integrating experiences into courses, into more regular activities that are part of students’ regular experiences,” Kinzie said.

Help students better understand the connection between their education and their work.

Strada’s body of research consistently has pointed to the idea that whenever individuals understand the connection between what they’re learning in the classroom and how it relates to their careers, their optimism about pursuing education improves, as well as their confidence it will be worth the cost, Clayton noted.

That finding holds true for current students assessing their school’s performance in connecting education to career as well as alumni who graduated decades ago and are reflecting on how their undergraduate experience prepared them.

Seek out short, simple career experiences.

Not all quality experiences that help students prepare for careers must be semester-long endeavors, Kinzie noted. A series of brief informational interviews with alumni in the field, for example, might bring the clarity students need.

“Sometimes the level of integration we think is necessary far exceeds what is actually necessary,” she said. “I think sometimes we believe a student needs a full semester of an internship experience in order for it to be meaningful and substantive and for them to really get something out of it. … I think we can be a lot more thoughtful about the way things are integrated and the extent to which the student needs that much of some certain experience.”

Encourage faculty to clarify for students how classroom work relates to career experiences.

Often, Clayton noted, professors already are designing classes with the end in mind: A classroom project might require teamwork, project management skills, and oral presentation know-how because those skills are transferable to the workplace.

But if faculty don’t spell out that connection for students, it can be lost amid the crush of classroom work and deadlines. Clayton called this aspect a “light lift” for educators because it emphasizes the worth of what professors are teaching and helps students appreciate the purpose.

Reevaluate the expectation that students should have a clear vision for their career plans.

Citing the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020, Dey noted that today’s students are preparing for jobs that don’t yet exist. The faster-than-expected automation of the workforce, the report shows, is expected to lead to a loss of 85 million jobs and gain of 97 million new jobs within the next five years.

“What we’ve found is putting the pressure for students to predict what they will become and to have these precise plans is too linear and unreasonable and is just not how this economy works,” Dey said. “There are jobs that will exist in five years that do not exist today.”

Instead, institutions should work with students to understand what they are curious about today and how to build networks that will help them grow in that field, not just stay tethered to the skills they develop in college. “It’s a very hard thing to measure and it’s a hard thing to sell, especially to parents,” he said. “But it can be done.”