Public Viewpoint

Understanding Undergraduates’ Career Preparation Experiences

December 8, 2021

 

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Key Findings

1

Although most first-year students intend to participate in a range of career-building activities, fewer seniors reported having these experiences. Networking, informational interviewing, and visiting with career services staff have the largest gaps.

2

Although seniors are generally clear on their future career plans and confident in their career-relevant skills, they feel least confident in their ability to network with alumni or professionals to make career connections.

3

Seniors who participated in career-preparation activities — particularly networking and social-capital building — reported greater confidence in their workplace skills and clarity in their career plans.

4

Students who held internships or had a combination of work and internship experiences were more likely to report confidence in their workplace skills than those who did not.

5

First-generation students are less likely to participate in social-capital building activities and less likely to hold internships, both of which are linked to higher confidence in workplace skills. Ensuring that all students have these experiences is key to equitable outcomes beyond completion.

Strada’s prior research on undergraduate perceptions of the value of their education demonstrates that students value their education most when they receive support to connect their education and career interests.1Strada Education Network, “Public Viewpoint: COVID-19 and the Value of College,” October 27, 2020.,2Strada Education Network, “Crisis of Confidence: Current College Students Do Not Feel Prepared for the Workforce,” 2017. In Strada’s nationally representative survey of college alumni, after controlling for differences in student characteristics, those who reported stronger connections to career as undergraduates were more likely to consider their education valuable, alongside other improved outcomes beyond completion.3Dave Clayton and Nichole Torpey-Saboe, “Student Outcomes Beyond Completion: Findings from the 2021 Strada Alumni Survey,” Strada Education Network, October 27, 2021.

Yet, especially for college seniors graduating during the pandemic, transitioning from college to career has been fraught with challenges. As of September 2021, unemployment rates for recent college graduates (ages 22-27) stand at 5.4 percent, an improvement from this time last year, but still double the rate of college degree holders generally and when compared to recent graduates at prepandemic levels.4Federal Reserve Bank of New York, “The Labor Market for Recent College Graduates,” Last modified November 5, 2021. Furthermore, given the blow experienced by 2020 college graduates in the labor market,5Amanda Borroso and Stella Sechopoulous, “College graduates in the year of COVID-19 experienced a drop in employment, labor force participation,” Pew Research Center, May 14, 2021. 2020 and 2021 graduating classes are competing for the same entry-level positions with other young workers who were laid off or had their jobs terminated during the pandemic.6Ashley Stahl, “The Outlook On the Job Market For College Grads in 2021,” Forbes, June 8, 2021. Additionally, graduating seniors may be facing fewer job training opportunities as they transition into the labor market. A recent survey of undergraduates, including 2,300 seniors, conducted by the National Association of College and Employers revealed that while virtual job recruiting expanded opportunities for all students to engage with employers, marginalized groups — including Black, Latino, and first-generation students — were less likely to hold paid internships, a key gateway into establishing practical experience for many entry-level positions.7Maria Carrasco, “Fewer job offers for the latest class of COVID-19,” Inside Higher Ed, November 3, 2021.

As others have noted, inequitable student experiences in career preparation at colleges and universities make addressing these discrepancies a matter of social justice to ensure every student can translate their education into the meaningful pursuit of their career goals and passions.8Mark Smith and Matt Small, “Career Services are a Social Justice Issue,” Workshift, August 25, 2021. In our analysis of the National Survey of Student Engagement’s Career and Workforce Preparation Topical Module — a survey of more than 55,000 undergraduates at 91 U.S. institutions (see Appendix for details) — we find promising indicators that, overall, seniors are graduating with a sense of clarity on their career plans and confidence in their budding workplace skills. However, we also find equity gaps, especially among first-generation students, in participating in activities, like networking with professionals and alumni, that seem to matter most for influencing positive career-building perceptions. This report offers further insights into similarities and differences in students’ career-building experiences in order to support the needs of undergraduates as they navigate new territory in transitioning from college to career.

Career-Building: What Activities Do Students Engage in to Prepare for Careers?


While colleges and universities traditionally offer numerous services related to career planning, students may be more likely to participate in some activities over others. In our analyses, we grouped activities based on their intent to either build general career awareness or build social capital skills, defined as:

  • Networking with alumni or professionals in the field.
  • Interviewing or shadowing someone in a career being considered.
  • Discussing career interests with faculty members.

We found stark differences between activities that first-year students planned to complete compared to what seniors reported they completed or were in progress to complete, especially participation in social-capital building activities and meeting with career services staff.

There are significant mismatches between intentions and completed activities, especially in social capital-building and utilizing career services staff

Notes: Base = 55,277 participants at U.S. institutions, n= 24,921 first-year students and 29,893 seniors. Survey question: Which of the following have you done or do you plan to do at this institution before you graduate (whether in person or online)?

For example, more than two-thirds of first-year students had plans to or had already networked with alumni or professionals in the field (70 percent), or to interview or shadow someone in careers of interest (77 percent). Yet only a little over a quarter of seniors reported having networked with alumni or professionals (27 percent) and only about a third reported interviewing or shadowing someone in a career of interest (34 percent), creating a gap of 43 percentage points between first-year interest and seniors’ completed activities, as depicted in the chart above. First-year students were also more optimistic about their plans to take part in different career-services activities, such as getting help on resumes, participating in mock interviews, and using other resources and information from career services. About 44 percent of seniors sought help on their resumes, but only about one-third took advantage of at least one other general career-building activity on their campus. This mismatch between what first-year students planned to do or have done related to their career development and what seniors reported doing suggests that somewhere along students’ college journeys they need more support to fully take advantage of the services and opportunities for career development on their campus. Low participation rates among seniors may also reflect the pandemic’s toll on general student involvement — an important consideration given the disruptions to campus operations and varying levels of access to virtual services.

Equity gaps also are evident in how college seniors take part in career-building activities.

Equity gaps persist, especially in first-gen seniors’ participation in career-building activities

Notes: Base = 55,277 participants at U.S. institutions, n=29,893 seniors. Responses represent seniors who reported “Done or in progress” to certain activities; first-generation defined as neither parent having a bachelor’s degree; students of color includes student-reported racial/ethnic categories: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latina/o, Middle Eastern or North African, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, Another race or ethnicity, Multiracial. Those who preferred not to respond were not included.

For instance, first-generation college students are less likely than continuing-generation students to take part in career-building activities, especially those related to building social capital within their fields of interest (e.g., networking with alumni or other professionals; interviewing or shadowing someone in their career of interest; discussing career interests with faculty). Only about 1 in 5 first-generation seniors reported networking with alumni or other professionals in their fields of interest, compared to about a third of continuing-generation students.

Participation in career-building activities also varies by race/ethnicity. Overall, American Indian or Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, and Hispanic or Latino seniors are less likely to participate in social-capital building and other general career-building activities compared to other groups.

American Indian/Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, and Hispanic or Latina/o seniors report consistently lower participation in social capital-building and general career-building activities than other groups

Notes: Base = 55,277 participants at U.S. institutions, n=29,893 seniors. Responses represent seniors who reported “Done or in progress” to certain activities. First-generation defined as neither parent having a bachelor’s degree; Race/ethnicity based on student self-report. Those who listed “Another race/ethnicity” or “I prefer not to respond” are not shown here.

We focus the remainder of the report on understanding wider differences between first-generation and continuing-generation students, leaving analysis across racial/ethnic groups and by gender as topics for future exploration.


 

Gaining Clarity and Confidence in Career Plans


Despite mixed participation among seniors in different career-building activities, most felt they had general clarity about their career plans. A majority of seniors agreed “very much” or “quite a bit” that they have a clear idea of their career plans (71 percent) and that what they are learning at their institution is relevant to those plans (76 percent). Three-quarters of seniors also felt they could describe the knowledge, skills, or experiences necessary for their future careers (76 percent). Feelings of connection and support were somewhat weaker as about two-thirds knew where to go with questions about their future education (65 percent) and 57 percent had received supportive feedback from faculty or other advisors about their career plans.

The majority of seniors believe they have clarity on their career plans and are learning the skills necessary to meet their goals

Notes: Base = 55,277 participants at U.S. institutions, n=29,893 seniors. Responses represent seniors only who responded “Very much” or “Quite a bit” to each statement.

There are few differences between first-generation and continuing-generation students in having clarity on career plans or feeling their education is supportive and relevant to their career planning.

One reason seniors may feel general clarity, relevance, and support for their career-planning endeavors stems from opportunities for career development in their courses. We find that when examining participation in career-preparation activities in students’ courses, both first-generation and continuing-generation students report similar levels of exposure. While a little more than half of seniors have researched careers in class or learned about careers and industries from practicing professionals, almost three-quarters report analyzing real-life situations, potentially contributing to their feelings of overall career relevance in their education.

Seniors report similar levels of exposure to career planning in academic courses

Notes: Base = 55,277 participants at U.S. institutions, n=29,893 seniors. Responses represent seniors only who reported “Often or Very Often” to certain activities. First-generation defined as neither parent having a bachelor’s degree.

The general feeling of career clarity and relevance transferred to seniors’ overarching confidence in their workplace skills as well. Among seniors’ responses for whether they felt confident in a number of common workplace skills, a majority rated their confidence highly. For example, 87 percent of seniors are confident in their ability to demonstrate effective work habits and 89 percent believe they will work effectively with people of other backgrounds. However, seniors felt least confident (49 percent) in their ability to network with alumni or professionals to make potential career connections.

Seniors have less confidence in networking than in other aspects of career preparation

Notes: Base = 55,277 participants at U.S. institutions, n=29,893 seniors. Responses represent seniors who answered “ Very much” or “Quite a bit” to each statement.


 

The Importance of Social Capital in Finding Career Clarity, Relevance, and Confidence


Looking at the types of career-building activities that seniors engage in, feelings of career relevance, clarity, and support are closely related to whether students are taking part in social-capital building opportunities. When compared to students who only took part in general career-building activities (e.g., getting help on a resume, participating in career fairs or mock interviews, attending talks or panels about careers, filling out a career assessment), those students who both participated in social-capital building activities and more general career-building endeavors were much more likely to report career clarity and relevance from their education than those who only participated in general career-building opportunities or who reported not participating in these activities at all.

Participating in social capital-building activities is strongly associated with feeling more clarity, relevance, and support around career planning

Notes: 55,277 participants at U.S. institutions, n=29,893 seniors. Responses represent seniors who responded “Very much” or “Quite a bit” to each statement.

Students who took part in more social-capital building work alongside general career-building activities not only felt more confident in their ability to network, but also more confident in all other workplace skills surveyed. For example, 59 percent of seniors felt confident about networking when they had participated in opportunities to build social capital compared to 36 percent of seniors who participated in general career-building activities only, and 37 percent of those reporting no participation.

Seniors have more confidence in networking and other career activities when they participate in social capital-building activities

Notes: 55,277 participants at U.S. institutions, n=29,893 seniors. Responses represent seniors who responded “Quite a bit” or “Very much” to each statement.

This relationship holds true even among first-generation students, who may be less likely to participate in different career-building activities. When they do, however, their levels of confidence across different workplace skills are similar to, or sometimes exceed, those of continuing-generation students.

Seniors have similar levels of confidence regardless of generational status

Notes: 55,277 participants at U.S. institutions, n=29,893 seniors. Responses represent seniors who responded “Quite a bit” or “Very much” to each statement.


 

Work and Internships: Influences on Students’ Career Plans and Confidence in Their Career-Related Skills


While the activities seniors engaged in during their college experience shape their perceptions of career relevance and confidence in workplace skills, when asked to identify the most influential factors on their career plans, about 8 in 10 seniors rated more personal reasons: their interests and passion for the work and fit with their skills and abilities. Work experiences (on or off campus) as well as holding internships or other field experiences also influenced career plans for about half of seniors. Other institution-specific practices were less influential to seniors than work or internship experiences, like interacting with faculty and advisors (41 percent), participating in co-curricular activities (28 percent), or attending career fairs or other course-based exploration (25 percent).

Seniors’ passions and perceived skills/abilities are more influential to their career plans than most other types of activities

Notes: Base = 55,277 participants at U.S. institutions, n=29,893 seniors. Responses represent seniors who responded “Quite a bit” or “Very much” to each statement.

In general, first-generation and continuing-generation students were similarly influenced by different personal and campus experiences. However, first-generation students were 7 percentage points more likely to report that work experiences influenced them (62 percent vs. 55 percent). Conversely, continuing-generation students were about 9 percentage points more likely to report that internships, co-op, or field experiences influenced their career plans (56 percent vs. 47 percent).

First-generation seniors’ career plans are more influenced by their work experiences, while continuing-generation seniors are more influenced by internship experiences

Notes: Base = 55,277 participants at U.S. institutions, n=29,893 seniors. Responses represent seniors who responded “Quite a bit” or “Very much” to each statement. First-generation defined as neither parent having a bachelor’s degree.

Work experiences may be particularly influential to first-generation students in part because they are working more hours while in school on average than continuing-generation students. Half of first-generation seniors reported working an estimated 21 or more hours a week compared to a third of continuing-generation students. Conversely, first-generation students were much less likely to have held internships, with 35 percent of first-generation students reporting they have had an internship compared to 49 percent of continuing-generation students.

First-generation seniors are much more likely to be working more than 20 hours a week and less likely to have completed an internship

Notes: Base = 55,277 participants at U.S. institutions, n=29,893 seniors. Responses represent seniors only. First-generation defined as neither parent having a bachelor’s degree.

* Regardless of work status.

Even among students who worked while in college, first-generation students were more likely to report finding more career relevance in their work than continuing-generation students. Working a paying job holds a different kind of purpose or value for first-generation students in relation to prepping for their careers. These differences warrant further attention to understand how perspectives may vary based on students’ majors and general access to paid or unpaid internships.

First-generation seniors who are working also find more career relevance in their work than continuing-generation students

Notes: Base = 55,277 participants at U.S. institutions, n=29,893 seniors. Responses represent seniors only. First-generation defined as neither parent having a bachelor’s degree.

Examining students’ work and internship experiences in college further, our findings also suggest that combinations of work and internship experiences produce more value for first-generation and continuing-generation students alike. For example, seniors felt more confident about their workplace skills across the board when they had completed both work and internship experiences. Internships on their own also seem to boost confidence in similar ways across generational statuses, more so than students who only worked or did not participate in work or internships at all.

Confidence in workplace skills increases when first-generation seniors have internship or combined work/internship experiences

Notes: Base = 55,277 participants at U.S. institutions, n=29,893 seniors. Responses represent seniors who responded “Quite a bit” or “Very much” to each statement; first-generation defined as neither parent having a bachelor’s degree.


 

Conclusion: Advancing Career Preparation as a Social Justice Issue


Insights in this report suggest areas to celebrate in students’ career-planning experiences, as well as important places to retool and revamp career preparation efforts so that equity gaps are eliminated and all students can gain value from career-building experiences on campus. First, even while graduating during the pandemic, Class of 2021 college seniors by and large are also graduating with a general sense of confidence in their career skills and a belief that what they have learned and experienced on campus has been relevant and helpful to their career goals. Despite the reported underutilization of career-building activities on campus, taking part in activities alone is not driving students’ sense of the value and purpose of their career-building experiences in college. Considering the pandemic’s disruptions to students over their junior and senior years, results underscore the importance of social-capital building activities and the work-based and/or internship experiences that highly influence student confidence and satisfaction in career trajectories.

These types of opportunities cannot be left up to chance for students. They must be intentionally designed to meet the needs of all students and ensure those opportunities are distributed equitably across groups.9Rochelle Parks-Yancy, “Interactions into opportunities: Career management of low-income, first-generation African American College Students,” Journal of College Student Development 53, no.4 (2012): 510-523.,10Blake R. Silver and Josipa Roksa, “Navigating Uncertainty and Responsibility: Understanding Inequality in the Senior-Year Transition,” Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice 54, no.3 (2017): 248-260. Investing in building these opportunities across campuses could play a sizable role in addressing the relatively low confidence most seniors feel about networking with professionals and alumni in their careers compared to other workplace skills. Beyond traditional career service activities, providing undergraduates with quality work and internship experiences and other social-capital building activities go hand in hand. Each not only contributes to social capital formation but also helps develop job-specific skills. These types of applied-learning experiences may hold different types of value for students, but serve the same goal: to help students gain translatable skills, confidence, and experience to pursue their future career goals. Providing these networking and experiential opportunities to students requires a high level of commitment from institutions, especially to ensure there is no one-size-fits-all approach. To do any less limits the ability for undergraduate institutions to fully serve students equitably beyond completion in a smooth transition between college and career.

 

Appendix: Methodology and Participant Characteristics


Data for this report come from the Career and Workforce Preparation Topical Module of the National Survey of Student Engagement, which collects information from first-year and senior students about the characteristics and quality of their undergraduate experience. In the full administration of NSSE 2021, approximately 890,000 first-year and senior students from 353 institutions (344 in the U.S., five in Canada, and four in other countries) were invited to participate and, in total, 211,667 students from 342 institutions responded to the survey with equal representation from first-year and senior students. In the U.S., 203,284 students from 337 institutions participated (47 percent first-year students and 53 percent seniors). NSSE’s overall sampling methodology calls for either a census of all first-year and senior students or a random selection of an equal number of students from each group, with sample size based on total undergraduate enrollment.

Participating institutions can then add NSSE Topical Modules, which are additional question sets of interest to institutional partners. The Career and Workforce Preparation Topical Module, designed by NSSE in partnership with Strada, was first administered in spring 2021 to 95 U.S. and Canadian institutions, representing about 27 percent of all institutions that participated in NSSE this year. All data in this report represent analysis of 55,277 participant responses from the 91 U.S. institutions that chose the Career and Workforce Preparation Topical Module. When analyzing data on first-year students or seniors overall, the data are weighted to replicate the original number of respondents for each institution. When analyzing subgroups, such as first-generation seniors, data are unweighted as response rates may differ among subgroups that do not reflect the representation of those subgroups across each institution.

Table 1. Participant Characteristics for NSSE 2021 and Career and Workforce Preparation Topical Module

NSSE 2021 Sample CWP 2021 Sample Seniors in CWP Module Only
Total N 203,284 55,277 29,893
Sex
Female 56% 66% 66%
Male 44% 34% 34%
Unknown <1% <1%
Race/Ethnicity
American Indian/Alaska Native <1% <1% <1%
Asian 7% 7% 6%
Black or African American 12% 9% 9%
Hispanic or Latina/o 17% 9% 8%
Middle Eastern or North African <1% <1%
Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander <1% <1% <1%
White 54% 60% 61%
Another race/ethnicity <1% <1%
Multiracial 4% 10% 9%
Prefer not to respond 3% 4%
Foreign/nonresident 5%
Generation Status
First Generation 45% 45% 47%
Not First Generation 55% 55% 53%
Enrollment Status
Full-time 84% 91% 85%
Not full-time 16% 10% 15%
First Major
Arts and Humanities 8% 7% 7%
Biological Sciences, Agriculture, and Natural Resources 10% 10% 9%
Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Computer Sciences 6% 6% 6%
Social Sciences 11% 11% 11%
Business 17% 18% 18%
Communications, Media, and Public Relations 3% 2% 3%
Education 7% 9% 9%
Engineering 9% 7% 7%
Health Professions 16% 16% 17%
Social Service Professions 5% 5% 5%
All Other 7% 7% 8%
Undecided 1% 1% <1%
Second Major 
Arts and Humanities 16% 15% 15%
Biological Sciences, Agriculture, and Natural Resources 6% 5% 6%
Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Computer Sciences 7% 7% 6%
Social Sciences 17% 17% 16%
Business 22% 24% 24%
Communications, Media, and Public Relations 3% 2% 2%
Education 6% 9% 8%
Engineering 3% 2% 2%
Health Professions 8% 8% 9%
Social Service Professions 5% 5% 5%
All Other 6% 6% 6%
Undecided 2% 2% 1%
Institutional Type (Carnegie Classification)
Doctoral Universities 57% 43% 43%
Master’s Colleges and   Universities 35% 45% 47%
Baccalaureate Colleges 9% 9% 8%
Other 2% 2%
Institutional Control
Public 67% 68% 69%
Private 33% 32% 31%
Undergraduate Enrollment
Fewer than 1,000 2% 2% 2%
1,000-2,499 9% 11% 10%
2,500-4,999 10% 18% 17%
5,000-9,999 19% 10% 12%
10,000 or more 59% 59% 59%

Notes: Percentages are unweighted and may not sum to 100 due to rounding. Sex is an institutionally reported category. Race/ethnicity is based on student-reported classifications. Data only represent U.S. institutions that participated in NSSE 2021 or in the Career and Workforce Preparation Topical Module in 2021. Other institutional data are shares of participants represented within those institutional categories.

Author


Elaine W. Leigh, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Fellow

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