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In a focus group I conducted with a colleague at a community college last year, I learned once again how little students know about the labor market. The ethnically diverse, young and predominantly male students we interviewed were ignorant — not too strong a word — about the relationship between college degrees, college majors and jobs prospects. They asserted with unfounded conviction that the degree itself would guarantee “a lot more” than they were earning currently in their hourly wage jobs — one student even said he expected “six figures.”

Many people make enormous sacrifices to go to community and four-year colleges, too often with blind faith that a college degree will deliver stable work, a satisfying career and a salary that will repay college debt. Yet many colleges still treat the degree as the end point, rather than viewing it as a credential that will land students a good first job. Given all that students risk, colleges and universities have an obligation to help them understand and prepare for the world of work. This is especially true for community colleges, which serve predominantly students who live in or near poverty. The economic devastation wrought by Covid-19 and its disproportionate impact on students served by community colleges make this an ethical imperative.

Too often, our system of postsecondary education perpetuates inequality by failing to fully address what it takes to graduate into a good job. Traditional career service offices and methods are outdated. Surveys confirm that students do not find career services offices very helpful; only about 27 percent ever visit and it is usually not until the end of their college experience. Colleges and universities also leave students to fend for themselves when it comes to finding highly valuable paid internships and research opportunities and connecting with employers.

Research confirms that community colleges have the fewest such opportunities available and the students who are left out are those who would benefit most — students of color, first-generation college goers, youth who are experiencing poverty, and young people from other underrepresented groups. While these students may graduate with technical skills, many lack the social networks and passed-down knowledge to navigate a system in which who you know is as important as — if not more than — skills and experience. The result: Students get degrees but don’treceive boost in pay or a step up the career ladder.

In a world in which many jobs openings are never published and applicants are often referred by someone already working in the company, students in poverty who lack influential connections are at a disadvantage. Colleges need to teach students to navigate the world of work, including what to do when they encounter barriers based on how they speak, the color of their skin and their countries of origin so that they do not give up their aspirations.

A recent study for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that Black and Latinx youth were preoccupied with “near-term obstacles to [college] access,” such as the costs, barriers of inequality and the risk of dropping out, while their white peers were more focused on “future-oriented career success” and landing “dream jobs.” That ceiling on aspirations and a hiring system that assesses candidate appropriateness by the vague question of whether the person is a “fit” explains in part why students who are already facing income insecurity often land jobs that pay less than those of their peers with more financial means and similar credentials, except in a small number of STEM professions.

Related: As recession deepens, colleges are cutting back on career services

Before I go further, I must note that improving how community colleges prepare students for the workforce will require substantial investment by state and federal agencies. Most community colleges are woefully underfunded. They receive significantly less federal, state and local aid than four-year colleges and universities while being asked, as is often said, “to do everything for anyone.” This is even more the case under Covid-19 with community colleges under pressure to help hourly wage workers who have suffered the most in the economic downturn gain new skills.  

Unlike students at four-year schools, community college students don’t have the luxury of time to navigate majors and plan a career. If they want to specialize, they have to do so quickly, and that’s difficult without the benefit of careful guidance. That planning is also complicated by the fact that when students enter college, be it at two- or four-year institutions, they are typically provided a bewildering buffet of courses alongside overly general information on how to choose majors and on graduation requirements. Fortunately, some community colleges have moved in recent years toward “guided pathways” that introduce students to career tracks earlier on. That shift is in response to evidence that students who declare a field of study or major are less likely to drop out, and that two-year liberal arts degrees have little currency in the labor market. 

A decade from now, we want graduates to say that their education prepared them to gain upward mobility — that the sacrifices they made were worth it.

Those pathways are a start. But what’s really required to prepare students for the world of work is a radical reimagining of career services. Fortunately, some models for this already exist. One approach is to engage faculty in career advising so that guidance is spread throughout a student’s college career, not just attended to at the start. After all, students connect with faculty through their classes and look to them for advice. Faculty enagement is one of the things that the social science course “Ethnographies of Work” (EOW) accomplishes at CUNY’s Guttman Community College. EOW is a required yearlong course and lab that gives students both a theoretical and historical understanding of work and an applied context for their readings. Each week, students go into the field to practice being ethnographers. They observe in a range of workplaces — from coffee shops to the 40th floor of investment banks — and learn at the same time to introduce themselves to a range of employers, talk about their interests, inquire about paid employment and imagine themselves as employees.

Related: How one liberal arts college is pushing students to up their job game

Other colleges are adapting EOW to their own contexts. Bunker Hill Community College in Boston is creating career maps to the most in-demand careers in the region, and integrating EOW into first semester learning communities and academic courses. Recognizing that students seek advice about their careers aspirations from faculty, staff, alumni and employer partners, the University of Connecticut established “Career Everywhere,” an ambitious initiative that involves not just faculty but all university employees.

The move to radically rethink career advising is long overdue. Students experiencing poverty need more than some initial information and advising about majors to make up for the chasm between them and their peers who grew grow up in privileged households. The latter take advantage of the social capital of friends and family to snag employer introductions. Students from low-income families, who often have had few opportunities for well-paid and engaging work, receive little help with network building in the professional world. 

Traditional career service offices and methods are outdated. Surveys confirm that students do not find career services offices very helpful; only about 27 percent ever visit and it is usually not until the end of their college experiences.

To be sure, an improvement in career services and job planning will require substantially increased investment by state and federal agencies. Most community colleges are woefully underfunded for their missions. They receive significantly less federal, state and local aid than four-year colleges and universities while being asked, as is often said, “to do everything for anyone.” This is even more the case under Covid-19 with community colleges under pressure to re-skill and up-skill hourly wage workers who have suffered the most in the economic downturn. And many public universities are also in difficult financial circumstances.

A decade from now, we want graduates to say that their education prepared them to gain upward mobility — that the sacrifices they made were worth it. To achieve that future, colleges must place the world of work at the core of the academic enterprise, not relegate it to a corner of campus bureaucracy. Information is just the beginning. Colleges must teach all students more about the role work plays in our lives. They have a special responsibility to help students of color and those who experience poverty to recognize, understand and overcome barriers and sorting systems that favor the well-connected. Colleges have an imperative right now: to help arm students not just with information, but with the strategies, knowledge and skills that minimize structures of inequality that can hold them back.  

This story about community colleges and the world of work was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Nancy Hoffman is a senior advisor at JFF and a co-founder of the Pathways to Prosperity Network. With Michael Lawrence Collins, she is the editor of “Teaching Students About the World of Work: A Challenge to Postsecondary Educators” (Harvard Education Press, 2020).

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