Economic downturns typically produce a boost in college enrollment. But when you add a pandemic and pervasive racial inequities brought to daylight, as well as mixed feelings about online learning and shifting perceptions on the value of college, many of those who could gain the most from a credential of value are made to feel that college isn’t for them or that it’s not the best vehicle to achieve their goals. Because Black and Latinx students are disproportionately affected by the impacts of COVID, institutions need to do even more to reach out to these students, or risk exacerbating equity gaps.

In higher education, many people mistakenly assume that students understand how a college degree prepares them for a job or career—just like we assume that students are well equipped to make decisions about which degree program to embark on. Let’s face it, most colleges tend to obfuscate the connection between college degree and employment and often fail to explain how coursework and competencies actually apply to the “real world.” If colleges want to recruit laid-off workers weighing the value of short-term certificates, underemployed adults considering whether to complete their degrees, and high school seniors unsure about their job prospects, all the while retaining their current students who are considering taking a semester off, they must start by doing one simple thing: Be explicit about how they can help students achieve their purpose. Because if we don’t intentionally work with students to define their purpose, we’ll see reductions in student enrollment that exacerbate inequities—and if we do, we’ll ensure more Black and Latinx students attain credentials of value.

Colleges must help students identify their purpose

Instead of leaving students to their own devices, colleges must help students choose a program of study that fits their aptitudes and goals. That partnership must be at the forefront of the student’s college experience. For the sake of recruitment and retention, colleges must guide students as they make informed decisions about degree programs and careers. Either through home-grown assessments (ASU), third-party vendors (EMSI, MyMajors, Hobsons), first-year seminar assignments, and/or integration with academic advising (EAB), colleges must ensure that all students pursuing a degree understand the connection between their programs of study and their career aspirations, so they can determine if a given career is a good fit for them.

As a complement, schools or systems should also provide relevant information about careers, job markets, salaries, and the most relevant skills and knowledge they can acquire through their degree programs. Look at Tennessee Reconnect as a great example of how a system can help students identify their career goals, find a degree program that aligns with these goals, identify costs and financial supports, provide tips on how to make the most of college, and more. The University of Delaware also does a great job of connecting individual programs of study with career options and, even more impressively, with career outcomes from recent graduates (all within two or three clicks from the main website).

Other blog posts from CCA discuss the importance of continued support and information throughout the student’s experience, but it’s crucial that colleges support students in their program choice, from the outset. During CCA’s “Promoting Equity Through Purpose” virtual session, we will provide more perspectives on how Purpose can transform students’ experiences through the following strategies:

  • First-Year Experience: Develop structures to connect students with resources that foster their academic and career goals.
  • Career Exploration:Make information on careers readily available to all students, empowering them to make informed decisions about programs of study that meets their skills, aptitudes, and aspirations.
  • Academic & Career Alignment:Create a clear connection between learning taking place in the classroom and the competencies associated with careers.
  • Adult Learner Engagement:Proactively communicate the value of a higher education degree to address the unique needs and goals of adults.



Fighting Patterns of Inequity
Yolanda Watson-Spiva, Complete College America and Danette Howard, Lumina Foundation

College, On Purpose
Complete College America

Colleges Have an Ethical Responsibility to Prepare All Students for the World Of Work
Nancy Hoffman, JFF, Pathways to Prosperity Network


Guiding Questions

  • Do your students understand how a college degree prepares them for a job or career? Are they prepared to make decisions about which degree program to embark on? 
  • How might the answers to the above questions differ across different student populations? 
  • Why is an intentional focus on helping students define their purpose for attending college critical to creating more equitable educational and career outcomes?
With Equity & Justice For All

Did you miss our virtual event? We’ve added recordings of every session to our website, so you catch any that you missed, revisit those you loved, and share favorites with your colleagues.