Maximizing the value of higher education: A shift towards personalized student pathways

As individuals grow, new life experiences and knowledge cause interests to evolve. Interest changes in college can impact the amount of time a student must spend on schooling and their financial commitment.

Higher education has reached an inflection point. The cost of a four-year education has increased to an average of $26,000 per year, which has put strain on students. Furthermore, more than 50% of recent high school graduates reported not pursuing a traditional four-year college pathway, and 64% stated they had changed their major since their initial selection.

With these factors at play, institutions must take proactive steps to ensure that students can maximize their college investment and feel confident to flourish in their chosen pathways.

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Acknowledging the flaws of major and career selection

When a student enters higher education, they must select a major. Students often choose these majors based on what they’re interested in or influenced by the people in their lives. However, this selection process is fundamentally flawed.

First, according to the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, career selection based on an individual’s interests is an ineffective way to make a decision. As individuals grow, new life experiences and knowledge cause interests to evolve. Interest changes in college can impact the amount of time a student must spend on schooling and their financial commitment.

Second, societal biases exist everywhere. Students must contend with biases that reinforce gender stereotypes as well as familial and exposure biases. These biases are reflected in the lack of certain groups in several industries. One of the most notable examples is in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), where women account for less than 30% of individuals employed in occupations.

Today, careers such as those in caregiving, administration and education are often emphasized to female students. In fact, nearly one-third of recent female high school graduates said they were rarely or never exposed to various career options during high school. This lack of exposure can preclude them from pursuing pathways for in-demand or high-yield careers.

In order to improve the major and career selection process, institutions need to diminish these biases, de-prioritize interests and promote students’ innate skills.

Exploring student aptitudes in admissions

In the admissions process, institutions can tackle biases and address the challenges posed by using students’ interests through the identification and exploration of their natural talents.

Natural talents, also known as aptitudes, are an individual’s ability to learn or perform in a given area. Research has shown that aptitudes are solidified by the age of 14 and remain stable for an individual’s life. This enables them to be used as a more reliable measure in major and career selection.

Institutions can incorporate aptitude exploration into the processes for accepted students. Once students are accepted, aptitude assessments can be offered to measure areas such as numerical reasoning, comprehension, spatial visualization, inductive reasoning and sequential reasoning. By measuring abilities in these areas, students can understand where their strengths lie and be armed with indisputable facts. This information also allows the student services and admissions teams to build strategies around supporting academic and career counseling.

Mapping student pathways

Once incoming student aptitudes are identified, academic and career counselors can leverage this information to proactively build relationships the day when students are accepted or at new student orientation. Conversations can alert students to their best-fit major and career pathways, including those they may not know about.

This approach can be extremely beneficial, empowering students to identify well-suited careers and map out their college journey. These highly personalized maps can include classes, internships, extracurricular activities and information on local industry organizations they join.

Supporting students throughout the higher education journey

While institutions should encourage students to plan their pathways early in their college experience, it can’t stop there. There are a number of activities that can be implemented to ensure students persist and continue on the path to success. These include:

  • Regular communication: Counselors, educators and advisors should schedule a regular one-to-one meeting cadence with their assigned students. These meetings can be conducted in person or virtually, should monitor student progress and discuss plans.
  • Access to industry professionals: Institutions must offer their students opportunities to meet with industry professionals aligned with their pathways. These meetings can be conducted in person or virtual through assemblies or webinars, and they should allow students to ask questions.
  • On-site industry visits: As part of the class curriculum, educators can schedule on-site visits with local employers during a semester. These visits can give students a real-world view of careers and offer them another opportunity to converse with industry professionals.

Reinforcing value in higher education

In today’s ever-changing higher education landscape, the primary goal of institutions is to demonstrate to students that a successful future is attainable with the education they are investing in. By emphasizing to students the importance of understanding their aptitudes, finding best-fit majors and mapping out complete pathways, institutions can achieve their goal.

More importantly, this shift towards personalized pathways can enable institutions to better equip students with the skills needed in the workforce and prepare them for real-world opportunities and challenges they may face.

Becky White
Becky White
Becky White is the director of higher education partnerships at YouScience. She previously served as the associate vice president for enrollment management solutions at Liaison International.

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