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  • College Offers the Economic Security Students Demand

    May 08, 2023 | By Thomas Guzowski

    OP ED
    An illustration of people walking on books.

    TAGS: trends and predictions, student attitudes, journal

    It’s time universities talk about it.

    NACE Journal / Spring 2023

    The stubbornly romantic belief in higher education as a place of learning for the sake of it is no longer true. In an age of online learning platforms, such as Coursera, where you can access more than 2,600 free courses taught by educators from Yale and Stanford, there are more affordable methods of learning. But if college is no longer a place of enlightenment and academic exploration, what is it for?

    The majority of college students (58%) enroll in college to obtain economic stability, increased earnings, and greater employment opportunities, according to a Gallup poll.1 The same report revealed nearly 19% of students selected their school because they believed it offered the best promise of improving their career outcomes. For those who have struggled to secure a job or get ahead with a high school degree, this likely comes as no surprise.

    I grew up in a rural community where more than a quarter of the population lived below the poverty line and only 4% of people had a four-year degree. It may have been this environmental factor that led my fourth-grade teacher to tell my class how few of us would ever attend college. She went on to say how a life without college meant you would have to dig ditches for a living. Her comments presented two choices—get a degree or a shovel. In contrast, my parents took a more encouraging approach, telling me to get good grades so I can get into college and, afterward, land a well-paying job. But the lesson was the same––college is the ticket to financial security. That was in the mid-’90s. Today, the lesson has grown ever more poignant.

    In 2008, more than 11 million U.S. workers were unemployed as the economy collapsed. At the same time, universities experienced a surge in enrollment. Around 20% of 21-year-olds and older who never attended college before enrolled in higher education, according to Inside Higher Ed.2 The rush to the admissions office was not driven by a new-found love for the sciences and arts—people saw college as a lifeline from sudden poverty. Their hopes weren’t unfounded. Those with a bachelor’s degree experienced far lower unemployment rates during the recession than those without, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).3

    Approximately a decade later, the pandemic struck the nation and unemployment once again skyrocketed. Yet, the college-educated fared significantly better. In fact, “approximately 65% of workers with a bachelor’s degree or more teleworked” through the height of the pandemic, according to the BLS.4 The vast majority of those with only a high school diploma either found themselves jobless or reporting to dangerously high-contact environments. A degree offered more than economic protections; it shielded many from the worst of the pandemic––hospitalization and death.

    As there has been public discourse about a potential recession amid years of inflation, one might imagine admissions offices are being inundated with applications. But they’re not. Nationwide, universities are struggling with enrollment. In 2021, college enrollment dipped by 1.1% compared to the previous year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.5 Previous years were not much better.

    The reasons for slumping enrollment are not singular. But the primary drivers remind us of what the Gallup poll already revealed––people enroll for economic reasons. The obvious headwind confronting universities under this view is a tight labor market. Employers have been forced to lower educational requirements while increasing starting salaries. As a result, more people may question the value of a degree if many entry-level jobs no longer require it. Of course, we know this is a short-sighted view that could have punishing consequences in the next shift in labor trends. Regardless, universities must respond now, rather than wait for an “I told you so” moment.

    Of course, some universities have responded. Take Colby-Sawyer College for example, which slashed tuition from $46,000 a year to $17,000.6 Other schools—such as Southern New Hampshire University—invested in new technology to offer more online courses.7 These are dramatic, newsworthy actions, but aside from the enormous expense, they fail to respond to the primary reason 58% of students chose higher education to begin with––job outcomes. Enter, the humble career center.

    It is time universities embrace their career centers as the key to recruiting and retaining students. To begin, they should align their first-destination survey (FDS) with the marketing efforts of the admissions office.

    The FDS is a common data-collecting method undertaken by many career centers. Recent college graduates are surveyed on current salaries, job outcomes, and more. Unfortunately, it’s rare to find the results published on the homepages of universities, where many parents and prospective students would love to review the tuition-to-earnings ratios when choosing a school.

    Of course, universities may shy away from publishing these data because they either haven’t collected the information or dislike the story it tells. If your institution is not gathering career outcomes data, it isn’t too late. As the Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Begin taking immediate steps to harness the power of career outcome data because demand for this information will only increase in the upcoming years.

    However, if your university is collecting these data but finds them disappointing, don’t be deterred. The data are telling you to invest more in your career center. Outside data already support ramping up career services as one of the most effective means of obtaining favorable FDS data. According to a 2022 NACE study, graduating students who used the career center received a greater number of job offers compared to seniors who never used the service.8 Further data reveals the amplifying effect of paid internships on higher salary outcomes.

    The years of exclusive access to an affordable education are over and universities should be celebrated as a moment of democratizing knowledge. But places of higher learning are also competing businesses. Thankfully, the solution requires no new buildings or expensive technology. Rather, it’s simply a matter of reminding people of the remarkable value a degree offers, while prioritizing where it all happens—the career center.


    1 Gallup (2018, January). Why Higher Ed? Retrieved from

    2 Fain, P. (2014, November 18). “Recession and Completion,”
    Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

    3 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2009, April 1). “Educational Levels and Unemployment at the End of 2008,” TED: The Economics Daily. Retrieved from

    4 Parkinson, C. (2020, September). “COVID-19, Educational Attainment, and the Impact on American Workers,” Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from

    5 Nietzel, M.T. (2022, October 20). “College Enrollment Losses Continue, but at a Slower Rate, According to New Report,” Forbes. Retrieved from

    6 Hartocollis, A. (2022, December 14). “A Sign That Tuition Is Too High: Some Colleges Are Slashing It in Half,” New York Times. Retrieved from

    7 Busta, H. (2020, April 23). “For Southern New Hampshire, the Future of the Campus May Be Online,” Higher Ed Dive. Retrieved from

    8 VanDerziel, S. (2023, November). “The Value of Career Services,” Fall 2022 NACE Journal, Vol. 83, No. 2. Retrieved from

    Thomas GuzowskiThomas Guzowski is the associate director at the University of Redlands Office of Career and Professional Development in Southern California. He is currently pursuing his master’s degree in organizational leadership. He has more than a decade of experience working in the nonprofit and higher education sectors.

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