In a given month, hundreds of first-year students flock to the career services center inside Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), seeking support in their pursuit to find a career path aligned with their interests.
Across American colleges and universities, of course, such “undecideds” — students uncertain about their majors and without specific career plans — are hardly a new or unique phenomenon. But the uncertain status carries far more severe consequences for community and technical college students than for their counterparts at four-year institutions, where students have a couple of years to figure out a course of study.
“At a two-year college, you’re supposed to declare a major right away,” said Gail O’Kane, vice president and chief academic officer at MCTC. “Students are kind of forced to pick something, even if they don’t know.”
In reality, many students face a hard time finding, and sticking to, an area of study that leads to meaningful employment after college — one of the main reasons MCTC recently became one of the first community colleges in the state to make a more concerted effort to help students move from undecided to decided.
Getting undecideds to decide
One way that MCTC has helped students decide majors is straightforward: increasing the number of employees at its career services center. Since 2015, the center hired an assistant director, career navigator, career and employer relations coordinator, and internship as well as employer development coordinator.
Julie Poyzer, who heads the career services department, said the increase was meant to combat a growing demand of undecided students seeking support in finding their future careers, especially among those planning to go into technical and trade industries.
Poyzer and O’Kane noted that many of the undecideds are first-generation college students who aren’t always familiar with the diverse programs the school offers and career opportunities available in the workforce. “Many of them don’t live in communities where there are a lot of college-educated people around them,” O’Kane added. “I know I lived in a community like that, and I didn’t know what the jobs were.”
The career services department’s process for helping students decide consists of several steps. First, it connects students to career assessment tests that help them identify their career interests and natural talent.
The students then learn more about the fields they’re interested in, including the occupations available within it as well as information about employment prospects and salary.
After that, the students return to the career services center with their findings. By then, some students have developed a solid career plan, like becoming a plumber or nurse assistant; others have just a general interest in, say, health care, business, construction or manufacturing industries.
Whatever the case, the school then connects them to networking events, where employers and professionals from various industries talk about the current state of the workforce, the skills required and the opportunities available in their respective fields.
“We do a lot of events where we could expose students to a lot of industries,” said Poyzer. “It could be taking them to a professional job-shadowing or asking them to attend panel discussions” on careers.
Once the students select a career path of some sort, they take semester-long “exploratory” courses before declaring a specific major. These classes help them sketch a career plan while also earning credits that count toward multiple majors.
These classes are part of an effort that MCTC initiated a year and a half ago to break away from a system that “forced” undecided students to declare a major upon arriving at the school. “Historically, community colleges assumed that you’re decided or you have to be decided,” O’Kane said. “We’re saying that’s not reality. So … we’ve decided to design around the students and simplify our pathways, creating broad pathways so students can funnel in and figure out what’s best for them.”
MCTC is one of Minnesota’s first community and technical colleges that have adopted the new model, which school administrators say saves both time and money for students.
O’Kane said that the system has already been successful in several other schools, including Georgia State University, which has reduced the number of students changing majors by a third after instituting a similar program. “So, we’re doing that by giving students more clarity about what their pathways are,” she added.
Likewise, Poyzer said the new system and the career services center at MCTC has helped reduce the number of the undecided students over the years, though the school doesn’t yet have available data to illustrate that reduction.
“Our goal is to really help them get on the right path,” Poyzer said of the students, “and to make sure they get connected to industries … and employers so they’re successful once they leave.”
Connecting students to jobs
One of the main ways that MCTC connects students to jobs is through networking events and internships, which often lead to full-time jobs in various fields.
For example, partner employers of the school provide students with a hands-on employment experience for one semester, while the students earn credits for their work. In addition, MCTC uses grant money to help students find paid internships. In recent years, the school has been working with Great Lakes, a Wisconsin-based company, which has a philanthropic project that funds thousands of low-income college students in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio. At MCTC, Poyzer said, the project has put nearly 120 students into internships.
National studies indicate that more and more employers are beginning to use internships as part of their primary hiring process. For that reason, O’Kane said, “internships have a big value … and are also a big part” of MCTC’s growing efforts to help students find a career path.
Besides internships, the school also helps students find jobs through traditional methods. That includes connecting students with partner employers seeking workers through networking events.
In fact, many of MCTC’s technical programs have representatives from partner employers on its advisory boards. “So in many cases, the students are getting referred directly by the faculty for jobs,” O’Kane said. “And we have very high placement rates.”