Last month, as Ontario’s 20 universities accepted a record 90,000 first-year students, their lobbying arm unveiled a new website, MyEducationHasValue.ca, to explain financial assistance and employment trends. “We know that the whole concept of a career and a job is at or near the top of the priority list of students and parents,” says David McMurray, vice-president of student affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University.
At Laurier, which promotes student engagement and is expanding the menu of academic programs that blend theory and practice, a global studies course with a for-credit component on career development will be piloted this fall.
Students will be expected to integrate soft skills normally acquired outside the classroom into their academic studies. “The ‘aha’ moment comes when they say ‘I see how those skills I learn in the classroom transfer into the economy’,” says Laurier director of learning services Gail Forsyth.
At the University of Alberta, experiential learning is also a priority. For example, the university introduced a campus-wide undergraduate research initiative last month for students to take part in projects, in and outside the classroom and for-credit or not, that develop skills of inquiry, analysis and collaboration. “Students are dearly asking for these things because they are learning skills that make critical, informed citizens,” says Connie Vanhagen, academic director for the initiative. “They don’t just want a pile of facts in their heads. They want to do something with it and that is exactly what employers want, too.”
The U of A Students’ Union, which has campaigned for the initiative for two years, will put on a two-day symposium next month to show off current collaborations between students and professors. “I think it will improve the perception of the value of having an undergraduate degree,” says Emerson Csorba, academic vice-president for the students’ union. He is also on a university task force to identify the desired attributes of a U of A graduate. A third-year student in political science at the university’s francophone campus, and the first in his family to attend university, Csorba has not settled on a career yet. But he has no doubts why he wants a degree. “To me, the aim of education is to instill critical thinking skills and a sense of engagement in students,” he says.
THINK THERE ARE NO GUARANTEES? ONE SCHOOL’S JOB PROMISE
Chantal Poirier, a third-year kinesiology student at the University of Regina, knows she is heading into a competitive job market when she graduates in two years. That’s why the 20-year-old from Antler, Saskatchewan, took her university up on its unusual offer to guarantee she will find career-related employment six months after earning her degree. If she is unsuccessful, the university will offer her another year of classes, worth $6,000, for free. Poirier, who attended workshops last year on interview skills, résumé writing, exam preparation and career development activities, is considering a career working with people with disabilities. As part of the guarantee, she spent 40 hours volunteering with the local chapter of Special Olympics. “I hope all this experience and help will guarantee me a job,” says Poirier, one of 343 students who took advantage of the offer when it was introduced in 2009. This year, 150 students signed up even before the start of school last month.
According to the province, 98% of University of Regina graduates find employment and the university’s 704 co-op education placements last year represents a 24% increase in five years.
So why the need for a guarantee?
“Our studies show the reasons student leave [without graduating]is not for academic or financial reasons but because of a lack of connection and engagement [with the university]” says Regina president Vianne Timmons. She wants to boost the current proportion of students who return after first year. The promise of a successful career is the “hook” for the guarantee, says Timmons, but its real purpose to connect students to life on campus, in and outside the classroom.
Students who sign up must stay for four years of school, participate in at least 25 hours of workshops, join the university’s co-op education program and develop relevant interview skills through mock interviews. They can also attend campus career fairs, join a student club and participate in intramural athletics or volunteer activities. After they graduate, they must demonstrate efforts to find employment.
The university won’t know until 2013 who might return for free courses. This year, they will evaluate students in the guarantee program against a random sample to see how they are doing in school. For Timmons, success will be measured by “whether I have a higher percentage of student success for students enrolled in the guarantee.”