As provost and later president at the University of Utah, Ruth Watkins called out the “hollow promise” a university delivers to college students who have access to higher education but leave without completing a degree. She challenged staff at Utah to make meaningful and systemic improvements in the school’s completion rate, and between 2011 and 2018, the six-year graduation rate increased from 55 percent to 70 percent.

But last week, as Watkins led a webinar conversation based on new Strada research, she acknowledged she had “a little bit of a confession” to make: As a university president, she focused on degree completion — but now she, like hundreds of other higher education leaders, is coming to understand it isn’t enough.

“I served as a university dean, then provost and president, and focused so much on persistence and completion,” said Watkins, now president of Strada Impact. “And I did that because I thought that was the right thing to do because I knew that students who complete have different outcomes in terms of earning than students who don’t complete.

“Today we’re having a conversation that says the finish line isn’t actually the completion of a degree,” Watkins continued. “We have to understand, measure, and actually actively improve tangible outcomes beyond completion so that everyone can share equitably in that success.”

As much as ever, a completed bachelor’s degree remains the surest path to economic mobility — a fact that cuts across demographics and is true for first-generation students, lower-income students, and students of color — yet U.S. adults increasingly question whether a bachelor’s degree is worth the cost, time, and effort required to achieve it.

Strada’s latest research turns to those U.S. adults who hold bachelor’s degrees and asks: What was valuable about your experience? What skills learned through college proved most essential? And what was lacking?

Among other findings, the report released Oct. 27, “Student Outcomes Beyond Completion: National Findings From the 2021 Strada Alumni Survey,” reveals that more than three-quarters of bachelor’s degree holders experienced at least one of three postgraduate outcomes: an earnings benefit, believing their education was worth the cost, or achieving their goals. Only half of them experienced all three outcomes, and women, first-generation graduates, and alumni of color were less likely than others to experience the postgraduate benefits.

The research also pointed toward undergraduate experiences that led alumni to believe their college education was more valuable. In a webinar based on the research, Watkins and other experts shared insights on the steps institutions can take that will improve the benefits of college long after students earn their degrees:

Bolster the connections between the undergraduate experience and careers.

Connections to careers take many forms for undergraduates, including internships, work-study opportunities, mentoring, career advising, work-based learning, and research experience. Bachelor’s degree holders who reported quality experiences connecting their education to career preparation earned more money, were significantly more likely to agree their education was worth the cost, and were more likely to believe their education helped them achieve their goals.

Webinar panelist Andy Chan, vice president for innovation and career development at Wake Forest University, noted that higher education traditionally has tracked its success by measuring enrollment, retention, and completion. Looking beyond graduation will be a paradigm shift, he said.

“Usually we stop there because those three things are hard enough that we think, gosh, if we just get enough to graduation and have a good graduation rate, we’ll just start this all over again,” Chan said. “And so the system has been designed that way. , aAnd for you to push now the conversation about what, really, is beyond completion? It’s about career readiness and career outcomes.

Ensure in-demand professional skills are part of undergraduate education and help students understand what skills they are learning and how to communicate them to employers.

Alumni who believe they developed in-demand professional skills are more likely to believe their education helped them achieve their goals — a pattern consistent across all fields of study, whether visual and performing arts, accounting, or engineering.

“Maybe that’s an opportunity for a college or university to step in and say, ‘Where can we either embed this skill into our curriculum,’ or in some cases, it might be better explaining to students how they are getting this skill and how what they’re doing in the classroom is related to the skills they’re going to be using,” said Nichole Torpey-Saboe, Strada director of research.

Reconsider how the institution measures success and look at career development outcomes even before graduates start their careers.

Traditionally, colleges and universities use career metrics that measure whether students have jobs six months after graduation. But those measurements depend on busy recent graduates responding to surveys and often are unreliable, leading schools to conclude career outcome data are out of reach. Some institutions measure only whether students are employed at all, not whether they are employed in the fields in which they earned their degrees.

Chan suggested measuring connection-to-career metrics while students are still in school, looking at their social capital development, experiential learning, and career readiness engagement. “We can actually intervene while they’re at school as opposed to waiting until they graduate and we find out, ‘Oh, we didn’t serve them well.’”

Watkins said she sees hopeful signs that institutional leaders are coming together to work through the hard questions that emerged during the pandemic — including questions about whether colleges and universities are measuring success with the right stick.

“Through this painful journey of realizing the great disparities that are in health and education,” Watkins said, “it has opened the door for institutional leaders to join together and become communities of practice around better outcomes beyond completion.”

Embrace the power of mentorship and social capital development, especially for students who traditionally have been underserved by higher education.

Webinar panelist Aimée Eubanks Davis, founder and CEO of Braven, has seen how transformational mentor relationships can be for students working to build a network of professionals who can advise and guide them through the early steps of their careers. Braven works to help these students develop the skills, confidence, experience, and networks necessary to transition from college to strong first jobs.

She pinpoints social capital as an ingredient missing for many students who are first-generation college students, low-income students, and people of color. “If you’re a first-generation college student, you have no idea that you actually need resources because you think your college degree alone is enough, and it’s just simply not,” Eubanks Davis said.

Identify faculty champions  for better connecting education and work.

Given that faculty, particularly at research universities, historically are rewarded and compensated based on their success in academic research, expecting them to fill in the mentorship and career- readiness gaps can be a challenging ask from institution leaders, the panelists noted.

But Eubanks Davis said faculty have made excellent partners on the campuses where Braven does its work. Some can question whether functioning as a bridge to careers can make a university feel more like an institution for career and technical education, but she said: “I think we’re just at a point where everyone’s saying, ‘Why not do both? Why can’t we do both? We can do both.’”

And by making that role easier for faculty — for example, by providing toolkits faculty can use to provide direction to students and offering alumni professionals who can talk to students about career paths for their majors, faculty can embrace the role. Selling that idea, Chan said, is usually easier in academic departments already experiencing enrollment declines.

“We’re in the business of whole-person education and preparation for life, being career-ready, to be able to actually teach students how to fish for themselves so that they can actually be employable for the rest of their lives,” Chan said. “It’s incumbent on all of us in higher education to say this is just something we should do. Maybe we didn’t do it before, but we can do it going forward. We can fulfill our obligation and our implicit promise to students.”

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