Social-emotional learning in college is crucial to career success

Did you know that the US labor market has experienced a whopping 8.6 million occupational shifts over the last few years? According to a recent McKinsey report, most of these shifts involved people leaving their industries entirely – especially roles in office support and customer service. The rapidly changing landscape has left students and professionals alike wondering what their next best steps are.

Current and prospective college students in particular may find it difficult to decide how to navigate their education and career pathways. Because automation and AI are a major reason for many of the occupational shifts mentioned in the McKinsey report, students must differentiate themselves in preparation for the modern working world.

Fortunately, McKinsey researchers have some excellent advice for higher education leaders who want to increase the likelihood of student success: focus on improving students’ social-emotional skills. The report notes that while Millennials and Gen Z tend to have strong digital skills, their social-emotional skills may be lacking. These skills – like self-awareness, responsible decision-making, and social awareness – will set them apart in the future.

The benefits of social-emotional learning (SEL) for college students

The rise in smartphone use, increased virtual learning, and remote work (while often necessary in today’s job landscape) could be why social-emotional skills are out of practice for many students. As one Inside Higher Ed article so aptly put it: “In college classrooms across the country, kids’ faces are aglow not with the love of learning but with the light emanating from their phones.” Add in the mental health crisis that continues to affect students, and the need for social-emotional learning becomes excruciatingly clear.

The concept of social-emotional learning (SEL) in education certainly isn’t new. In fact, here are some of the most notable research on SEL from Every Learner Everywhere, the Learning Policy Institute, the Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning:

  • Schools that implement SEL have better persistence and retention
  • SEL reduces disruptive behavior problems and emotional distress
  • SEL facilitates positive, prosocial behaviors and positive relationships with peers and leaders
  • Continued practice and application of social-emotional skills increases engagement in learning and improves students’ cognitive performance
  • Students who experienced SEL alongside their academic learning earned an average of 11 percentile points more than peers without SEL
  • SEL encompasses five components: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness, and relationship skills


How to integrate SEL components into curriculum

It’s easy to understand why SEL is important in higher education. However, it can be challenging in practice. To educators who already feel pressure for their students to succeed academically, SEL seems to pile onto an already overwhelming to-do list. The answer lies in integrating a few social-emotional components into the curriculum in ways that make sense for the class structure and learning material.

For example, students in a business class could review real-world case studies that highlight ethical challenges. Students could analyze the situation from multiple perspectives in an effort to improve responsible decision-making and social awareness. The assignment would help them empathize with different stakeholders, explore all the dimensions of ethical decisions, and discover their own beliefs and biases.

Likewise, students in a history class could rewrite a historical event with an alternate ending. This would encourage students to empathize with individuals or groups that may have been marginalized or underrepresented. By rewriting historical narratives, students could expand the “micro” skills that fall under the larger umbrella of social-emotional education, such as empathy, critical thinking, adaptability, and creativity. Instructors could also expand the assignment to allow for reflection about how these reimagined historical events would affect life today.

For educators who need more information and direction about SEL at the college and university level, the Society for the Teaching of Psychology and the American Psychological Association published a helpful SEL manual. The manual includes research-based ideas and best practices for how to incorporate SEL into college courses.

Changes in the US job landscape have prompted many people to consider different career paths, go back to school, or brush up on new skills. As higher education leaders focus on how these changes affect their institutions, they can look to social-emotional learning to help facilitate student success and persistence. Educators may also be interested in the following blog posts:


Social-emotional learning in college is crucial to career success

Like What You Read? Share It With Others!