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Career-Relevant Education Linked to Student Well-Being

by Brandon Busteed and Zac Auter

The purpose of higher education is in question. Some higher education experts insist that the purpose of higher education is to train students for jobs, while others argue it is to prepare them more broadly for meaningful, engaged lives. New research from Gallup and Strada Education Network suggests that these two "different" purposes of higher education are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they may be one and the same.

Through the Gallup-Purdue Index -- a representative study of 70,000 college graduates -- Gallup has made significant leaps in understanding how six key undergraduate experiences prime graduates to succeed in their work and lives after college. Those experiences include:

"Big Six" Collegiate Experiences
1. I had at least one professor at [college] who made me excited about learning.
2. My professor(s) at [college] cared about me as a person.
3. I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams.
4. I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete.
5. I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom.
6. I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while I attended [college].
Gallup-Purdue Index

Gallup's research has shown that these collegiate experiences are related to college graduates' long-term well-being, which encompasses more than just physical health. It measures how individuals feel about and experience their daily lives across five elements: purpose, social, financial, community and physical.

Now, through our partnership with Strada Education Network, Gallup continues this critical work to examine well-being indicators among currently enrolled college students.

We recently released the Strada-Gallup 2017 College Student Survey, a new nationally representative survey of current students examining their perceptions about preparation for the workforce and the career-related support they receive from their institutions. Based on responses from more than 32,000 currently enrolled college students at 43 randomly selected U.S. colleges and universities, we learned that only one-third of students strongly agree that they will graduate with the skills and knowledge needed to be successful in the job market (34%) and workplace (36%). And just half (53%) believe their major will lead to a good job.

Given these results, and building on our research on college graduates, we dug deeper into the data to understand how colleges and universities can promote the well-being of their students. We found that the top driver of student well-being is the degree to which a student agrees "they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day" -- one of the key survey questions we use to measure student engagement.

Career-Relevant Coursework and Support Are Critical to Student Well-Being

The top two drivers of students agreeing they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day -- accounting for student demographics and characteristics -- are both focused on the relevance of their education to their future careers:

  1. Students who agree that the knowledge and skills they are learning in their coursework will be relevant in the workplace are considerably more likely to agree that they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day and feel more confident in their future career outcomes.
  2. This is also true for those who agree that the faculty and staff at their school are committed to helping students find a rewarding career.

What This Means for Colleges and Universities

The connection between the relevance of students' education to their career and their overall well-being tells us that students thrive when they can envision a path from their studies to their future work. In practice, colleges and universities should think purposefully about drawing more connections between the college experience and the careers for which students are preparing.

Results from the Strada-Gallup 2017 College Student Survey offer powerful insights into how colleges and universities can begin to draw these connections, including more direct discussions among students and faculty about potential career options.

Students who say that at least one professor, faculty or staff member initiated conversations with them about their career options expressed considerably more confidence in their workforce preparation. Similarly, students who said they often speak with faculty and staff members about potential career options are more confident their studies will lead to positive workforce outcomes.

Through our research, we have learned that the top reason students pursue postsecondary education is to get a good job, more than double the second-most common motivation of general interest and a love of learning. Promoting conversations among students and faculty about potential career options may expose students to careers they had not previously considered.

Moreover, career-based discussions with students could also help faculty draw more purposeful connections between students' coursework and their future careers. A two-way dialogue between faculty and students about the relationship between the collegiate experience and their future careers can better prepare them to thrive in their future work, but can also promote their current well-being.

Zac Auter is a Consulting Analyst at Gallup.
Gallup

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