Purpose First Means College and Career Success Later

By Lorenzo L. Esters

Vice President, Philanthropy, Strada Education Network


Ask students why they pursue a college education, and their answers often focus on finances and future employment opportunities.

In fact, issues related to jobs and future earnings command the top three spots in the list of reasons students gave for attending college in a 2015 College Decisions Survey by the New America Education Policy Program.

Yet many colleges and universities still operate on a model that does not expose students to career choices until their third or fourth year of study. A new initiative from Complete College America aims to change that.

College America Purpose First kickoff meeting.
College students discuss their aspirations and challenges during the recent Complete College America Purpose First kickoff meeting.

In its Purpose First project, supported by a $1 million USA Funds® grant, Complete College America is developing strategies, tools and practices for colleges to use to help their students develop a strong sense of career purpose — and act on it. The hope is that students will:

  • Better navigate complex academic choices.
  • Stay on track for completion.
  • Find good first jobs.
  • Successfully navigate a rewarding career.

I recently asked Dhanfu Elston, vice president of alliance state relations for CCA, to share more about Purpose First.

Dhanfu Elston, vice president of alliance state relations for CCA
Dhanfu Elston

What challenge does Purpose First seek to address?

Elston: Too few college students enter campuses with the critical information needed to make an informed choice about a potential major and career pathway. Much of this information is readily available. But only a limited number of institutions have designed a guided pathway that includes purpose-driven strategies connecting students’ skills, values and interests to long-term career and financial aspirations.

We recognize that career exploration and navigation happen on a learning continuum for many students. Unfortunately, it’s all too common to hear students say that they wish they’d been informed about a career earlier, or that having career information at the beginning of college would have reshaped how they approached college.

The opportunity to work with college leaders and national experts on designing Purpose First is energizing, as we seek to improve our campus systems to benefit the many students and families who view college as the path to a desired career.

What are the key areas on which this project focuses, and why?

Elston: In the early phase of the Purpose First project, through insights learned from national organizations, we have identified multiple gaps and opportunities related to onboarding students and assisting them in choosing a major:

  • Students infrequently receive career interest and assessment counseling. In the instances that they do receive this important information, it lacks connection to their educational planning process.
  • Students need real-time, national and regional labor market data that highlight required degree levels and credentials, associated skills, expected salaries, and future demand.
  • Students can benefit from access to information on wage and non-wage investment returns for a variety of occupational fields.
  • When provided with training and tools, academic advisers can help students better understand and connect their educational and career goals.

Complete College America has identified three broad, interrelated areas that serve as the focus for Purpose First:

  • Integrating career assessment and counseling — early and continuously — into academic advising.
  • Incorporating economic and noneconomic return-on-investment calculators into the advising process.
  • Providing real-time labor market information accessible to students through a learning management portal.

Five CCA Alliance members in Hawaii, Texas, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Virginia have selected multiple institutions that will be demonstration sites for the implementation of Purpose First.

On which practices will CCA focus to ensure that more students choose a career as they enter college?

Elston: The demonstration network of states and institutions will work closely over 24 months to develop and test a set of strategies, tools and practices that other colleges can deploy to help their students develop and act on a strong sense of career purpose. We will place specific focus on college admissions, new student assistance, and academic advising.

What does CCA hope to accomplish by the end of the project, and what are the measures of success?

Elston: We hope to see more students participating in an assessment of their values, skills and interests before they enroll and register for classes. Additionally, we expect that the majority of students at the demonstration institutions will have access to an economic and noneconomic ROI calculator, incorporated into the advising process.

Using the CCA national data metrics, we expect to see more students enrolled in a major or meta-major within their first year and increased credit accumulation within an associated program of study.

The Purpose First project allows CCA to enhance our mission of significantly increasing the numbers of Americans with quality certificates or college degrees through our work with an Alliance of 41 states, territories and consortia. We’ll disseminate through the CCA network a final Purpose First report and training guide of findings related to implementing purpose-driven strategies, for future scaling efforts in states and institutions across the country.