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Why Career Education is Core to Student Retention Initiatives

Image of stressed college student leaning against a wall in a hallway.

"A key to student retention and persistence is reiterating the value of the academic experience and how it will translate to future success. Not all students see a clear connection between their time in college and their future after graduation. In 2022, 24% of enrolled bachelor's degree students said they considered stopping out because they didn't believe a degree would help them achieve their personal or career goals." How to Solve Your Student Retention Problem Using Strengths Janet Gibbon | GALLUP

In our career ecosystem consulting work at The Career Leadership Collective, we often see a perceived boundary between student success and career outcomes. While most campuses understand the relationships between wellness, financial security, and academic success, career planning or exploration is rarely considered a factor in retention. The pressure to secure a good job and repay student loans after graduation can be overwhelming, and the fear of not living up to those expectations can be daunting. For this reason, career education or readiness should be a core component of college retention initiatives. 

According to recent research, approximately 41% of students pursuing higher education have contemplated taking a break from their studies in the last six months. The Lumina Foundation-Gallup State of Higher Education 2022 study found that emotional stress and personal mental health were the top two reasons students considered withdrawing from school for at least one term -- ahead of cost, course difficulty, or physical health.

24% of students in the United States stress about their future and finding a job after graduation.

One of the main contributors to this stress is uncertainty surrounding their futures and career goals. Students constantly worry that they haven't made the right decision about their majors or are not moving the needle on succeeding after graduation. This can impact their wellness negatively and lead to academic challenges. Additionally, research increasingly shows that career uncertainty is a significant predictor of students’ college enrollment status. This is particularly true for first-generation and underrepresented college students.

According to another Gallup-Strada survey, "students who are likely closest to transitioning into the workforce — juniors and seniors — are no more confident than first-year students and sophomores that their education equips them for the workforce. About a third of students — regardless of their year in school — strongly agree that they will graduate with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the job market and the workplace."

By incorporating career education or career readiness into college retention initiatives, students can gain the knowledge and skills they need to be successful after graduation. These career readiness topics include pathway and skill mapping, resume writing, job searching, and networking. 

By gaining career readiness skills, students will feel more confident about their future, are more likely to continue with education through graduation, and be better equipped to handle the pressures of post-graduation life. In addition, career education can help students make informed decisions about their majors and career paths; in turn, this can decrease changes of major and time to graduation By exploring different careers and learning about the required skills and qualifications, students can develop confidence in the skills they gain in their courses, resulting in a more fulfilling college experience and a greater likelihood of success after graduation. 

Want more proof? During my time at DePaul University, I was lucky to work with three colleagues to design and launch Future Forward, an innovative career exploration and readiness incubator for first-year students. Initially created as a yield initiative, we learned it was also an effective retention strategy. 

Check out these stats for the first year of the program: 

  • 88% of Future Forward students used the Career Center that year compared to just 16% of first-year students the year before Future Forward's inception.

  • 93% of students who completed Future Forward that year were enrolled in at least one fall quarter class, exceeding the 81.8% enrollment rate of the previous year’s first-year students and proving the program’s value as a retention strategy.

Career education is a crucial component of college retention initiatives. By providing students with the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to succeed after graduation, we can help them manage stress, make informed decisions, and achieve academic success.

What are some ways campuses can better leverage career education? Here are a few places to start:

  • Integrate career exploration early: Integrate career exploration activities and discussions consistently into the curriculum starting from the first year of college. This can assist students in understanding how their studies relate to their future goals, increasing motivation and reducing stress. Develop strategies specifically for undeclared students or populations with high change-of-major rates.

  • Highlight career success stories: Profile and feature alumni thriving in their careers.  This can inspire current students and demonstrate the return on investment (ROI) of their education. Use alumni panels, speaker series, or social media campaigns to share these success stories.

  • Connect classes and majors with internships and career pathways: This helps students see real-world applications of the skills they are developing. Incorporating experiential learning into the curriculum provides students with meaningful hands-on experience and reinforces the “why” for finishing their degrees.

Through our consulting practice, The Career Leadership Collective assists campuses in connecting career development strategies to overall student success and retention efforts. To learn more, please reach out to

Margie McGee-Newton, Creative and Content Manager, Consultant

The Career Leadership Collective

Portrait of Margie McGee-Newton, the author of this blog post.

Margie McGee-Newton has twenty years of experience in higher education. She has worked with a wide variety of institutions, including the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, the University of Minnesota, Wellesley College, and DePaul University. She is passionate about bringing sensitivity and appreciation for a user experience lens to higher education and leveraging accessible and engaging learning experiences to connect learners to meaningful and actionable content.


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