Should Professional Development be Required in College?

A college degree is almost universally recognized as a pre-requisite for a professional career. For quite some time, however, that by itself has not been sufficient for students wishing to enter the professional ranks. During the job application process, prospective employers are looking for two things from applicants in addition to a college degree:

  • Relevant work experience and
  • The ability to present their education, experience and skills effectively

Both of these are important in making the match between applicant and employer. However, if students don't possess the skills in the second case, their ability to enter and advance in the workplace is limited.

A student's resume and cover letter must be targeted, compelling and error-free. Her interview skills must be sufficient to the task of linking her education and experience to her passion and ability to do the job. Ideally, she will have networked effectively with alumni to gain information and knowledge to help advance her career.

Students have the opportunity to develop career skills and make connections while in school -- but do they?

There's an old saying about about college: Anything not required for graduation is automatically optional. Career programs and workshops, along with in-person career counseling and online assistance of various kinds are offered by many colleges and universities. Participation is also generally voluntary, so most students don't access these resources, unless they have an immediate, compelling reason (such as a resume deadline or job interview the next day). By that time, the benefit to students is often reduced and their presentation is less effective than it might have been from a more deliberate and thoughtful approach to career development. This leaves aside the challenge of developing a network, which most students don't fully understand or engage in.

While the argument can be made that students are adults and are responsible for making their own decisions about how to prepare for their professional lives and use their time effectively, many remain naive about the role of professional development in their post-college success. I have long been an advocate for student responsibility and freedom of choice in their activities. However, just as students in most higher education institutions must follow a required curriculum, I think there is a place for mandatory life and career skill development during the four-year college experience.

Two of the most-cited reasons by students for going to college are to have access to better jobs and higher salaries. In its 2013 survey of first-time, first-year college students, the Higher Education Research Institute found that over 86 percent of students claimed it was "very important" to attend college to get a better job. Similarly, 73 percent felt attending college was very important to make more money. Given these numbers, I suspect that attaining career skills through professional development activities will be one requirement that most students (not to mention their parents) will be happy to meet.

As employers increasingly look to higher education to train students for specific careers, colleges and universities should consider instituting professional development requirements to assist students in articulating the value of their education and experience to those employers. Career Boot Camps and Professional Development 101 seminars focusing on networking, sourcing internships and interview skills are a good start, but if they remain optional, those programs will face challenges reaching a majority of the campus population. A flexible, but required program of co-curricular professional development starting in the first year would be instrumental in assisting all students with post-college professional life, particularly those who struggle to connect their education and experiences with their interests and plans.

Champlain College is one institution that has done just this, with its Life Experience & Action Dimension (LEAD) program. Champlain's is a four-year process required of all students and organized around the themes of engaged citizenship, managing a lifelong career, and gaining financial sophistication. Champlain requires students to participate in targeted programming annually; if students don't, they are unable to register for the subsequent semester.

Historically, most schools have followed an "opt-in" strategy when it comes to preparing students to enter and be effective in their chosen careers. In light of the increasing cost of higher education and the scrutiny that parents, alumni and politicians have placed on career outcomes for graduates, colleges in the current environment can't afford not to explore making professional training and development graduation requirements for students.