Intertwining Education and Career Paths Keeps Lifelong Learners Skilled and Employed

By Carol D'Amico

Strada Education Network Executive Vice President, National Engagement and Philanthropy

Over the past three years, the Consumer Insights team at Strada Education Network has partnered with Gallup to interview more than 300,000 Americans between the ages of 18-65 about their expectations and experiences with post-high school education. Talking to a wide swath of people from all educational levels and from all racial, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic backgrounds, we have learned a lot about how Americans view the purpose and value of their educational experiences.

One overarching theme is that those who most value their education beyond high school say it was directly related to their chosen career path. In short, their learning was purpose-driven from the beginning and highly relevant to their current job responsibilities.

Through our Consumer Insights survey, we know Americans rate the value of their education based on how much they paid for it in relation to how well it has served them in pursuing a meaningful career in which they can support themselves and their families. This is true regardless of what state they live in, which college or university they attended, or whether they completed a degree or dropped out. And it is true for every demographic group.

The bottom line is that when people decide to pursue education beyond high school, they need to see a clear connection between education and work.

The vast majority of people who are pursuing postsecondary education – including 18- to 24-year-olds who went to college directly after high school — are already working. Since these learners, as well as those returning to education mid-career, are already on a career path, it makes sense that they are looking to pair their education with the path they are on, or with a path they would like to pursue next.

In fact, getting a good job — or progressing to a better job than the one they have now – is the No. 1 motivation for pursuing postsecondary education. There is not even a close second reason.

When it comes to the types of education consumers value most, vocational technical certificates and post-graduate degrees are both rated highly. Despite the fact that these two pathways are at opposite ends of the education and cost spectrum, they actually have a lot in common: Both are career-focused, purposeful, and involve workplace-based learning.

Bachelor’s degree fields deemed most valuable to education consumers – healthcare, engineering, education, and computer science – also are skills-based and career-focused.

It’s not surprising then that when people consider pursuing more education, they value most the advice they get from their employers — well beyond the advice they receive from other sources like school counselors or career guidance offices. If their jobs are threatened by potential downsizing or automation, only 29 percent of our survey respondents say they would turn first to their local college or university for help while about half of workers – 49 percent – say they would turn first to their employer to explore upskilling opportunities or additional education.

The consumers of postsecondary education are speaking very clearly, and now that we are listening, we must also act: To prepare learners for the world of work and to prepare workers to continually educate themselves and upskill, we must create integrated pathways where education and career paths are not only aligned but also intertwined.