4 Ways to Make Sure Your Students Feel Their Degrees Are Worth the Cost (Part One)

This is the first part in the Ed News Daily series, 4 Ways to Make Sure Your Students Feel Their Degrees Are Worth the Cost

In a recent Gallup poll, only 38 percent of recent college grads said their educations were worth the cost of tuition.

Those who graduated between 2006 and 2015 were the least satisfied, and the more expensive the school, the lower the satisfaction rate.

This cynicism is not without cause. Tuition has risen faster than most people can manage. In the 2015-2016 academic year, the average cost of tuition and fees at public, four-year colleges and universities stood at $9,410. That’s quite a steep increase from 1971, when the same education cost less than $500. Add books and housing into the equation, along with the fact that most students don’t graduate on time, and the final tally would make even a university president cringe.

When people look at a price tag like that, they don’t see value — they see debt. Goldman Sachs researchers found that in 2010, it took the typical college graduate eight years to pay off a bachelor’s degree, and that number is projected to continue rising. If you’re going to pay for something well into your 30s, you want to make sure it’s worth it.

Colleges and universities haven’t felt pressure to prove their worth just from students and parents who foot the bills. Even the White House has called for more transparency on student outcomes to help consumers of higher education make better decisions. Schools can do four things to both communicate their value to current and potential students and to ensure that the educations they offer live up to current expectations:

1. Integrate career readiness throughout the student life cycle.

Among recent college graduates, the unemployment rate is a staggering 7.5 percent, while the rate for experienced degree holders is only 5 percent.

We often hear debate over higher education’s main purpose: Is it meant to offer a broader education or professional training? Many faculty members believe it’s not their roles to train students for jobs, but higher education is not a single-purpose pursuit. It can serve as a source of broader education and professional training.

Plus, with the challenges that recent graduates face, you’ll have an easier time convincing potential students that higher education is worth its price if you can set them up for successful careers after graduation.

This preparation needs to begin during enrollment and follow students’ progress until they transition from graduation into the workplace or graduate school. As they begin their journeys, have direct conversations with them about career planning. Get them thinking about what they want to do after school, and help them explore possible options they may not be aware of.

As they progress, include professional skills as part of their education. Some degree programs, such as business majors, already teach skills such as presentation crafting. But even your liberal arts students should be taught nonacademic skills like interdisciplinary collaboration, professional communication, and other common capabilities required in many fields.

Schools should also facilitate concrete experiences through jobs and internships. Once again, a student from any discipline can benefit from experiencing a real workplace, even if it’s not within his target industry.

study conducted by Gallup and Purdue University found that 71 percent of recent graduates who had real-world jobs or internship opportunities in college are now working full-time. Of those who didn’t, only 56 percent are employed full-time.

Wake Forest University in North Carolina has created a highly successful career development program that has led to 98 percent of its 2015 graduates to employment or graduate school. This success rate is the result of Wake Forest’s efforts to foster career readiness in three ways:

*Marketplace: Wake Forest students can use an online tool called Marketplace to learn about typical entry-level jobs in fields they’re considering. Using resources provided by Marketplace, they can see current openings and internships and learn about significant leaders in various industries to follow on social media or blogs.

*Career-minded field trips: Called “career treks,” these are trips that Wake Forest students take to New York City, Washington, D.C., or San Francisco. During the trips, students visit a variety of well-established businesses, such as American Express, Hulu, and Google. They tour the facilities, ask questions, and engage in some direct networking with employers.

*Strategic internship and career information: Using platforms like Handshake, Wake Forest provides students with information specifically tailored to their individual interests and career preferences. If a student is looking for an internship at a small business on the West Coast, for instance, such platforms ensure that she’ll know about relevant opportunities as they become available.

These strategies may not be the ideal solution for every institution, but many schools can adapt them or use them to spark new ideas that would be more effective within their specific settings.

2. Implement viable guided pathways.

For some students, deciding on a focus of study is like trying to pick an ice cream flavor at Baskin-Robbins. With many choices to consider and so little time to decide, they often just go with chocolate because it’s the safest option.

Schools need to help students narrow their focus to help them select majors, and then students need to understand the steps required to complete their chosen programs. Many institutions are implementing guided pathways to clearly map out required courses and offer the support students need to stay on track.

Of course, the issue here is not just about having too many choices. Students often find their progress stymied when the courses required to complete their degrees are unavailable. Moreover, without proper guidance, they may mistakenly take courses that don’t count toward their specific degree programs, wasting time and money on excess or unnecessary credits — or lose previously earned credits when they transfer to new schools.

When students have clearly defined goals and have fewer choices to make along the way, they’re more likely to graduate on time. They leave their undergraduate experiences fully prepared for their next steps in life, whether that’s entering the workforce or continuing their educations.

A guided pathways approach begins with enrollment. New students are required to explore majors and choose academic plans based on program maps developed by faculty and advisers. Their timelines are laid out from the beginning, and students are assessed to determine areas where they need extra support.

The maps highlight essential courses and milestones that secondary requirements are based on, which helps make course schedules more predictable. Faculty members collaborate to define expectations and develop these programs and should also be trained in evaluating outcomes to adjust them accordingly.

As students progress (or fail to), they need support in the forms of frequent feedback, updates on how far they’ve come and how far they have to go, and monitoring systems to raise red flags for support staff if they get off track.


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