Higher Education

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

A mandatory 'nudge' toward future goals and decisions

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Like many places in the United States, southeast Wisconsin doesn’t have enough trained individuals to fill open jobs.

That’s why this fall, in addition to the liberal arts, entering students at Carthage College will receive a career development program mandated for all students, beginning with the incoming class, for their full four years. Accelerated by a recent $15 million gift to the college, this program, called Aspire, will help students better prepare for life after college, including through workplace learning, career preparation, leadership and organizational skills.

After careful study, we have drawn a conclusion that other colleges might like to explore: A mandatory approach toward career education is in the best interest of our students. Career development programs aren’t anything new. The problem is that college students aren’t taking advantage of the opportunities. That’s why we decided to create a student program that isn’t optional.

Related: As jobs grow hard to fill, businesses join the drive to push rural residents toward college

In a survey conducted last year by the Center for Marketing and Opinion Research, 71 percent of Carthage students reported having given a lot of thought to their plans after graduation, but fewer than half had visited career services. The default is that students have to choose to come and take advantage of the opportunities we offer, and too many don’t opt-in.

We know that career opportunities are important for students — according to a just-completed survey of prospective Carthage parents and students, employment outcomes of a college are one of the top factors that families consider when selecting a college. We also know from the Center for Marketing and Opinion Research survey that nearly 50 percent of alumni wished that they’d had more career preparation while at Carthage.

So why don’t students take advantage of career services at most colleges? It has a lot to do with what Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein describe in their book Nudge: When given the choice to make certain decisions, people sometimes — and maybe even often — will make bad ones.

Related: Some colleges start using their long winter breaks to help students plan for jobs

I have spent a lot of time thinking about Nudge in the context of higher education, especially since I became a college president 18 months ago. Over the course of my career at the University of the South, Davidson, and now Carthage College — as I have met with advisees, eaten in dining halls, attended theater and sporting events on campus, held open office hours, and walked my dog across campus — I have overheard students talk about classes they will and won’t take, study abroad opportunities they will or won’t take advantage of, and internships they will or won’t aspire to.

I am often startled by how many choices are made in the absence of good information, by how many important decisions are swayed by rumor, campus legend, or otherwise false or trivial bits of information.

The question that I ask myself, as I reflect on these students’ decision-making processes, is: Should we nudge them in what we believe to be the right direction? In this manner, we could gently guide our students toward what historically has been successful, with a choice to opt out instead of leaving it open for them to select in.

This was on my mind as we considered which elements of our program that our students would automatically be enrolled in. We want to help our students better prepare for life after college by being more intentional with opportunities and customized coaching to guide them as they transition to life after college, and we want to make it easy for them to access (and benefit from) the program.

Related: Colleges welcome first-year students by getting them thinking about jobs

We’re still considering building in other defaults like prearranged internships or career coaching or counseling; selected internships for students based on assessments of their career goals and reviews of corporate opportunities; or set requirements, like a certain number of meetings with a career counselor or mentor, that help us approach better outcomes for these students after college.

Perhaps these carefully designed defaults might lead our students to quicker entry into the workforce post-graduation, or a higher likelihood of attaining a job in a desired field. There may be more opportunities to gently nudge our students toward potentially greater outcomes as the program grows.

If we can better shape a student’s future by more thoughtfully guiding the present, why wouldn’t we provide our students with the choices that help set them up for success?

This story about career education in college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

John R. Swallow is president of Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

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John Swallow

John Swallow is the president of Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. See Archive

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