College students graduating this year have gotten mixed signals about the strength of the job market, but this much is clear: Just as for those final exams in the spring, preparation is everything when it comes to a solid career launch.

And some of that preparation is getting better as colleges and universities modernize and supercharge their career services to help students navigate those often choppy job-hunting waters.

First, the 2024 outlook: After two years of strong hiring increases, employers in a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers said they expect hiring to fall 1.9 percent compared to last year.

For context, the projected hiring increase in 2022 was the strongest on record, at 26.6 percent, and last year’s increase was 14.7 percent.

So, despite the small dip, graduates are still entering a market that is hungry for their skills, says Shawn VanDerziel, the association’s president and chief executive officer.

“It bodes well for the current class that more than three-quarters of responding employers rate the job market for the Class of 2024 from ‘good’ to ‘excellent,’” VanDerziel said.

Students and parents increasingly worry about career preparation as college costs rise and questions grow about the value of degrees.

A new report about alumni attitudes toward their college experience says only about half the grads had decided on a career before graduation. That confirms what many in higher ed have seen—a trend that has helped increase resources for career coaching and job placement centers.

“At a time of intensifying competition for students, ‘career success’ is the top reason people give for getting a degree,” said a survey by Lightcast, a workforce analytics firm.

Schools have beefed up career services staffing and budgets, and some have begun career advising as early as freshman year.

Encouraging students to use the resources is key. As The Hechinger Report found, schools are devising creative ways to reach students, aligning career counseling within majors and scattering services across campus rather than in a single building. They’re spending more time on how courses match the skills and competencies students will need on the job.

Naturally, there are some crosscurrents: Schools are catching up with the quality concerns of students and parents in a time of growing skepticism about the value of college degrees. At the same time, however, increasing technology means that a growing number of good jobs will require degrees.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has looked at this and found that by 2031, 72 percent of U.S. jobs will require at least some college education. A bachelor’s degree will be needed for 42 percent of jobs. And fewer than a third of jobs will go to those with only a high school diploma.

We’ve known for a while that students do better when they connect with campus resources. A 2022 student survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found students who engaged with career centers got more jobs and paid internships than those who did not. The data shows that students who use career centers are more than twice as likely to get a paid internship.

The study also identified the most effective services, including help with internship searches, networking, and mock interviews.

Researchers also have talked with a key higher-ed constituency—alumni. The National Alumni Career Mobility report from Lightcast surveyed graduates who were five and 10 years out of college. Not surprisingly, the alums favor teaching career skills that go beyond finding a first job. They want strategies to navigate their careers. Other highlights from the study:

  • Concern about the return on their college investment has grown to match rising tuition and other costs. While 82 percent of surveyed alumni said they were satisfied with their educational experience, only 44 percent agreed their degree was worth their student loan debt.
  • Racial equity remains a concern. Respondents from historically marginalized groups reported carrying more student loan debt—and many said their debt was overwhelming.

College degrees don’t guarantee great jobs, but on average they dramatically increase a person’s earnings over time. Those with degrees also report being happier, more reliably employed, and engaged in their communities, among other benefits.

We might call these emerging job-finding services on campus a form of early career intervention. Like other interventions for health and well-being, these can produce benefits— financial and otherwise—far down the line.

Now it’s spring semester, when job and internship searches are most urgent. This is crunch time for the schools, too: By building solid on-ramps to internships and jobs, colleges can go a long way toward satisfying their most important stakeholders: the graduates.

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