Five paths to a career-focused college education

How to choose a career-focused education

Today’s young adults understand the importance of a career-focused college education and make it a high priority, according to a recent Viacom-AP poll. At the same time, national education experts are calling for ways to increase the options for post-secondary learning beyond the traditional four-year degree.

At issue are two trends. First, the recession coupled with the escalating costs of four-year colleges are causing many students to put more value on a post-secondary education that provides strong job training skills. And second, the low nationwide college graduation rate is prompting a closer study of how to broaden the range of pathways for people looking to complete a college education.

“I think the economy and the cost of college are definitely drivers for young people having a career focus when looking at higher education options right now. We see more and more kids drawing that direct line between education and a job,” says Nicole Hurd, executive director of the National College Advising Corps based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Meanwhile, the Harvard Graduate School of Education report, “Pathways to Prosperity,” calls for the country to address poor college graduation rates by doing a better job of offering students alternatives that would better equip them for success. These alternatives include more emphasis on vocational training and college coursework that is deeply integrated with apprenticeships.

The stats are sobering. According to the Harvard study:

  • Only four in 10 Americans have obtained either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s.
  • Only 56 percent of those enrolling in a four-year college attain a bachelor’s degree after six years.
  • Less than 30 percent of those enrolled in community college succeed in earning an associate’s degree within three years.

To address this, the Harvard study calls for an increased effort in steering students toward vocational training and models of education similar to those of European countries that place a heavy emphasis on apprenticeships.

But there’s more than one way to solve this particular dilemma right now. To help students attain a post-secondary education with a career focus, or professionals wondering about how to change careers in today’s education landscape, we outline five paths to a career-focused post-secondary education. 

1) Vocational and training schools, instead of college

Stats: The Georgetown Center projects that 14 million job openings—nearly half of those that will be filled by workers with post-secondary education—will go to people with an associate’s degree or occupational certificate. These jobs generally pay a significant premium over jobs open to those with just a high school diploma or GED. More surprisingly, they often pay more than many of the jobs held by those with a bachelor’s degree. In fact, 27 percent of people with post-secondary licenses or certificates—credentials short of an associate’s degree—earn more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient.

Student type: “Vocational training is absolutely a critical option for students to look at if they know what fields they want to go in. It’s not just ‘college for all.’ Everybody should have a post-secondary opportunity, because in today’s job market, there is a need for a meaningful credential, so if a vocational certificate is the gold standard in your area of interest, you should go for it,” says Hurd.

Tips: Hurd says you still need to research the right type of program and expand on your area of interest. “If you want to own your own business, you should also get management and business training,” she says.

Hot jobs/benefits:  Openings for registered nurses and health technologists—positions that typically require an associate’s degree—are expected to grow by more than 1 million by 2018. There will also be exceptionally rapid growth in such healthcare support jobs as nursing aide, home health aide and attendant. Though such positions are still open to high school graduates, they are increasingly filled by people with some post-secondary education or a certificate. Also, electrician, construction manager, dental hygienist, paralegal and police officer are expected to be in-demand jobs in the coming years.

2) Meaningful undergraduate work experience

Stats: There is some research by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that shows that working while going to school does more than put money in your pocket. Researchers found that the average GPA of freshmen at four-year universities who worked between one and 20 hours a week was 3.13. Those who didn't work at all had GPAs averaging slightly less (3.04), according to the BLS.

Student type:  Working while going to school is a great way to test the waters for those who have already found a job or career path they find interesting and fulfilling.

 “This is an incredibly powerful way to firm your resolve for completing your course of study and a great catalyst for deciding what to do,” says Hurd. She also says those open to online courses and distance learning are well-suited for balancing work and school. “If you’re taking online courses, it’s easier to work in some ways, by virtue of the fact that you do not have to physically sit in classes during the work day like traditional students.”

Tips: Be sure not to work too many hours, Hurd says, and be sure to keep focused on the goal of finishing your post-secondary education. “Always remember, you don’t reap the benefits of a post-secondary education unless you complete it,” she says.

Hot jobs/benefits: Hands-on experience offers the ability to better assess if a field or occupation is the right fit for you and provides the bonus of networking with businesses and employees before graduation. Also, while almost any type of practical experience is helpful and it’s clear job placement is a priority, it’s especially good to find out if high-demand jobs are a right fit for you before basing a course of study solely on the chances of finding work upon graduation. For instance, among the top 30 fastest growing occupations, these lead the pack, according to the BLS:

  • biomedical engineer
  • network systems and data communications analyst
  • personal and home health aide
  • financial examiner

While it may not be surprising that technical and health care professions are in the top five, skin-care specialists and athletic trainers are also in demand, placing in the top 10, at numbers eight and 10 respectively.

3) Choose a college or post-secondary school with work study, apprenticeship or internship requirements

Stats: In Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland, after ninth or 10th-grade, between 40 and 70 percent of young people opt for an educational program that typically combines classroom and workplace learning over the next three years. This culminates in a diploma or certificate - a “qualification” - with real currency in the labor market. Sadly, this model, also popular in Canada, is not as widespread in the U.S., says Hurd. Still, she says there are schools that do place an emphasis on long-term, career-related internships and apprenticeships in the field.

Student type: Those who are eager to get practical, hands-on experience and aren’t as inclined to make participating in campus life a top priority.

Tips: Research the possibility of studying abroad, as well as stateside schools that make internships and career-based work-study a priority. Additionally, explore businesses, such as Microsoft, that sponsor certification education.

Hot jobs/benefits: Network systems and data communications analysts, computer applications software engineers, home health aides, and personal and home care aides are four occupations that are expected to grow at a minimum rate of 34 percent by 2018, and expand by at least 155,800 total jobs over the 10-year period beginning in 2008, according to the BLS, and all are prime areas in which to gain practical experience while enrolled as a student.

4) Taking time off before college, the so-called ‘gap year’

Stats: There’s no hard and fast data on the young adults opting to take a year off between high school and college – known as a ‘gap year’ – but educators say it is yet another emerging trend on the national higher ed landscape.

Student type: “I’ve seen successful instances of students taking a gap year because they didn’t know what they wanted to do, and they did some sort of public service, and it was a huge catalyst for them, they wound up being better students because of it,” says Hurd.

Tips: Hurd advises pursuing a course of higher education immediately after one year off, citing studies saying it becomes more difficult to jump in as people grow older. She also recommends pursuing public service or volunteer work or traveling for those taking a year off after high school. Another constructive option? Auditing a course at a community college.

Hot jobs/educational benefits: Done properly, the benefits of a gap year can include a student being more focused on committing to higher education upon entry, having a greater appreciation for the rigors of school life and perhaps a better idea of what he or she may want to study.

5) Customize degrees to create the ideal skill set

Stats: It’s hard to find data on this type of tailored course strategy - where students combine coursework from more than one college to create a customized degree for themselves - because the practice is just now becoming an emerging trend, says Hurd, even though the opportunity has existed in various forms for some time in parts of the country. Typically, students are able to do this when colleges located near one another form a consortium, such as the Five Colleges, a consortium established in 1965 in Western Massachusetts, which includes Smith, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, and Amherst colleges and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The Five Colleges collaborate to allow students to take courses at any institution in the consortium and count the credits toward their degrees.

Student type: The ideal type of student for this approach to higher education includes those who are willing to follow through on the paperwork involved in transferring credits and navigating the process, as well as those who are willing to travel out of their comfort zone to participate in different campus cultures. It is also best for students who may want to explore new and emerging technologies or coursework that may not yet be a specialty, or even offered, by their own institutions.

Tips: “Lots of colleges are just now starting to do this, so be sure to see what partnerships exist, as well as what’s in the pipeline,” says Hurd. She also says to be sure you find out all the requirements involved before embarking on this type of approach.

Hot jobs/educational benefits: Occupations in emerging fields, such as green and environmental technology/sustainability engineering or computer sciences, are ripe for this type of exploration, as many colleges and universities are just now starting to add courses based on these disciplines. Students also get the benefit of experiencing different learning environments and networking beyond their own school.