U.S. colleges and universities are facing a “moment of reckoning—in which they must improve the economic returns of a college education,” according to a white paper released last week by researchers at Harvard University’s Project on Workforce, Inside Higher Ed reports. Titled “Delivering on the Degree: The College-to-Jobs Playbook,” the paper notes that in 2021, 40% of recent college graduates worked in jobs that didn’t actually require a college degree.
Although a college education is still the most dependable pathway to economic mobility, the combination of rising college costs and student debt loads has increased skepticism about the return on a college investment—and has intensified calls for higher education to strengthen pathways to career success.
However colleges and universities often lack the information they need to identify which workforce preparedness programs effectively train students for their future careers, the white paper says. While college leaders have been “rightfully and well-meaningly” focused on reducing barriers to higher education, “we’re seeing this kind of change in focus on the role that colleges are playing in economic mobility,” Kerry McKittrick, associate director at the Project on Workforce, tells Inside Higher Ed. “But there’s really not a huge evidence base around what works as far as connecting students to good jobs.”
To fill this knowledge gap, researchers at the Project on Workforce reviewed 13 “interventions” (career exploration, skillbuilding, and immersion programs) at public two-year and four-year colleges, Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), to determine which ones improve students’ economic outcomes. Their work is part of a larger movement that Jeff Strohl, director of research at Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, says uses “labor market information as part of the enrollment decision-making and graduate decision-making process,” Inside Higher Ed reports.
Hoping to guide employers, college leaders, and other stakeholders in building stronger college-to-jobs programming, researchers highlight a “promising model” for each intervention, including internships, career mentorship programs, job shadowing, experiential learning, career coaching, and cohort programming. They also explore the strength of evidence supporting each intervention’s effects on employment and earnings, academic performance, and persistence; the intervention’s prevalence across U.S. colleges and universities; and how easy it is to implement.
All of the interventions showed some positive effects on students’ academic performance. A few established strategies, such as internships, apprenticeships, and work-based learning, had strong evidence to support their economic impacts, while emerging programs, including cohort programming and last-mile bootcamps, lacked sufficient evidence of their specific impact on employment and earnings outcomes. However, there is “strong evidence” that cohort, career readiness, and subsidized youth employment programs have overall beneficial effects on historically underrepresented populations, minoritized groups, and “at-risk” youth, respectively. Researchers also found that these career programs are often siloed within individual departments, leaving students to figure out available support on their own.
Improving college-to-job pathways is a communal effort, researchers say. “This is a full ecosystem responsibility,” McKittrick tells Inside Higher Ed. “Employers need to step up. Policy makers need to come to the table…We hope that we can bring folks together with the information they need to start a conversation.”
To bolster support for career-readiness programs, the paper recommends colleges:
- Include economic mobility as part of their overall mission by aligning coursework with well-paying careers, offering for-credit or paid opportunities for career learning for low-income students, and prioritizing experiential learning.
- Partner with employers to reach underrepresented populations and institutions that serve communities of color, including community colleges, HBCUs, and MSIs to remove barriers to career immersion experiences and fund college career prep programs.
- Work with state and federal lawmakers to increase funding for programs that focus on career outcomes and track how well institutions meet their economic mobility goals.