Time to Rethink How Students Experience College and Successfully Launch Their Careers

Colleges need to do a better job of onboarding students. Students, most of whom are 18 years old and have never lived away from home, typically arrive for a 2-to-3-day orientation, have a ton of information thrown at them, and are largely expected to figure it out from there.

Adopting the best practices of a great on-boarding program would be a great start. The freshman orientation needs to unfold across the first year with purpose and intentionality and it needs to provide concrete pathways for success that are easily accessible.

Campuses are filled with curricular and co-curricular opportunities, but very few students grasp the value and variety, much less how to take advantage of them. Higher education has spent a lot of time and money building co-curricular opportunities, but we invest far too little in helping students navigate the options.

It’s also time to rethink the false tradeoff we foist on students to choose between the liberal arts foundation they need to succeed long-term, or the pre-professional skills they need to get and succeed in the first job. Universities need to move away from that “either/or” mindset. Students need both.

Companies are starting to realize the negative impact of this dichotomy as well. They’re facing a talent shortage not just at the entry-level, but also later in the pipeline, where there is a dearth of young professionals who can step into management roles and then leadership roles.

There are two things we can do to address this problem. First, colleges and universities need to do a much better job advising students to fill their weeks and semesters with a much wider set of experiences. Too many students go narrow and are often encouraged to do so.

Students enrolled in more professionally oriented programs like engineering, nursing or business need to take a much wider range of classes in the colleges of liberal arts. They need classes where they can learn to write, communicate, and understand what drives history and humanity. They need to develop what Rishad Tobaccowala calls the six Cs that will be essential to students’ success. Three are skills that students need to develop as intellectual habits — cognition, creativity, curiosity — and three are skills students will need to effectively work with others — collaborate, communicate, convince.

Students also need to develop pre-professional skills to get and succeed in the first internship and job. Certainly, this can happen as students stretch themselves and take a few more skills-oriented courses offered by the universities. It can also happen as students develop management skills by running student organizations, joining leadership programs, or getting active in the kinds of entrepreneurship centers emerging on many college campuses.

Second, students are in classes only 60% of the year. During the month of January, for example, most students are between semesters, at home, and not doing much of anything. Summer vacation carves out another three months of the year.

What if, instead, students were encouraged to use the time between semesters to address fill the six Cs and what if colleges saw this as part of their responsibility?

There is no “one size fits all” here. The last thing a student in an engineering program needs between semesters is more math and science classes. They need more liberal arts experiences around how to write, communicate, and work with other people. Meanwhile, the liberal arts students need some professional-specific skills – perhaps a digital marketing certificate that can aid in their future career in marketing.

It is often said  that students need downtime between semesters. Colleges and universities need to reframe breaks as an opportunity to prepare students for the world of work. They need to help students learn to manage stress by embedding mindfulness programs across campus.

Another critique is that many students need to work especially if they are resource-strapped or need to support their families. Universities need to build this into their broader commitment to career planning. This can include simple things like providing stipends for internships or making campus jobs meaningful. For example, students can learn digital marketing from the university communication and brand team. Or they can work on networking infrastructure in the IT department.

For pre-professional students the challenge is connecting to the rest of the campus and making sure that summer internships broaden, not narrow, the skills, values, habits, networks and experiences our students are having.

For liberal arts students, and liberal arts colleges more generally, they need to form closer partnerships with Ed tech companies that are working at the margins of their space. Denison University has recently done this with Denison Edge, an extension of its Knowlton Center for Career Exploration in downtown Columbus, Ohio. Denison is partnering with industry experts and Ed tech companies to deliver short-term programs for liberal arts students enrolled in any college who need to close skills gaps or pick up some profession specific stackable credentials.

One purpose of the college experience is to unlock a student's potential to be the architect of their own adult lives and careers. Universities should actively rethink how they deliver that experience to students to ensure the value proposition is as compelling as possible.

Adam Weinberg is the President of Denison University in Granville, Ohio.