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These are the courses that really prepare college students for jobs

A graduating student of the City College of New York wears a message on his cap during the College's commencement ceremony in the Harlem section of Manhattan.
Mike Segar | Reuters
A graduating student of the City College of New York wears a message on his cap during the College's commencement ceremony in the Harlem section of Manhattan.

Newly minted college graduates are entering a promising job market. This year, businesses are on track to hire 5 percent more young workers than they did in 2015.

But few are actually prepared for employment. A survey from PayScale, a compensation data firm, found that even though nine in 10 recent college grads believe they're prepared for the workforce, only half the nation's employers agree. As one of the survey's authors explained, "the fundamentals of business… are not taught in our school systems."

Colleges and universities need to address this. Specifically, they should aggressively incorporate into their courses high-impact educational practices (HIP), which connect academic lessons to real-world problems and foster the creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking employers most value. These practices can turn academically engaged students into profession-ready graduates.

In today's job market, academic skills alone aren't sufficient for success. Employers also want workers who can communicate effectively with customers and each other, who know how to manage their time and are efficient, and who can get a task done with minimal supervision. Indeed, over 90 percent of businesses value such "soft" aptitudes more highly than any specific college major, according to a survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

High-impact practices provide this pre-professional base, often in the form of extended research, collaborative projects, or community-based service jobs. In every case, a central feature is frequent, rigorous feedback. Students improve their work habits and communication skills in response to input from peers and professors. Instead of toiling away at solo homework assignments and term papers, students operate in an environment that actually approximates the working world.

"This year's college graduates have bright job prospects. Universities must evolve to better empower students to succeed once they're in the workforce."

It's no surprise, then, that students feel much more confident with their professional prospects after participating in HIP, according to a 2015 national survey conducted by the Carnegie Foundation.

That feeling is reciprocal. Employers highly value HIP experience, according to that same Association of American Colleges and Universities study.

And student participants don't have to wait until they get to the workplace before reaping the benefits, since programs incorporating HIP immediately enhance their academic performance.

Consider a study of nearly 400 colleges and universities from George Kuh and Chun-Mei Zhao, two experts in HIP. They tracked students in "learning communities" – where those taking classes together also lived close to one another, thus increasing extracurricular opportunities – and found that that these students generally put more effort into their school work, took harder courses, and developed closer relationships with faculty than those who did not.

Likewise, research from Kent State University shows that students with more extensive HIP engagement have higher GPAs.

Some higher-education institutions have already recognized the power of HIP.

At the University of Iowa, for example, students interested in business careers live together in the "BizHawks" community. This program sponsors a contest in which student groups work collaboratively on a business pitch. "BizHawks" even practice business manners at meals with faculty and receive extensive feedback on their resumes.

The University of Florida offers courses that allow students to delve into a specific subject for several months while collaborating with teachers and peers.

And at my own university, New York Institute of Technology, faculty members in all disciplines are providing students with real-world experiences, typically through team-based capstone projects or internships at companies and nonprofit organizations in their chosen fields. These internships are meaningful experiences and are sanctioned by the school, as students must sign an agreement with our office of career services detailing the skills they hope to develop.

In our school of architecture and design, one professor implements HIP in his course by having students transfer their designs into virtual reality apps so they can walk through their work and "see" ways to improve it. Industry leaders also inspect these virtual reality projects and provide honest feedback, giving our budding architects a taste of real-world project management.

More institutions of higher education need to follow this example. And colleges should rigorously assess existing programs incorporating HIP to ensure they're actually generating value for students.

This year's college graduates have bright job prospects. Universities must evolve to better empower students to succeed once they're in the workforce. High-impact educational practices should be a central part of that equation.

Commentary by Francine Glazer, associate provost for educational innovation and director of New York Institute of Technology's Center for Teaching and Learning.

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