Three Career Counseling Strategies for the Age of Student Debt

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As NBC News recently reported, “the total amount of student loan debt is $1.47 trillion…more than credit cards or auto loans.” NBC News also cites a 2018 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which estimates that “as many as 44.7 million Americans have student loan debt.” Unfortunately, if you work in career counseling or a similar department at a college or university, you’ll almost certainly be helping students who will leave school with the burden of student loans weighing on them. 

Of course, there are broader, systemic solutions to the complex problem of our current student debt crisis. These should absolutely be pursued and enacted. However, in the meantime, you’ll still be sitting across from overwhelmed students who don’t quite know how to balance the upcoming demands of their student loans with their vocational interests. 

Student debt is a national epidemic, but it’s also an individual problem – one personally faced by the students you advise. In light of this, it’s helpful to have career counseling strategies that acknowledge and address the issue of student debt. Below, we provide a few workable tactics for helping your career counseling mentees tackle both their student loans and their professional lives. 

1. Start seeing students during their freshman year. 

Typically, students don’t start really thinking about their post-college plans until they’re juniors or seniors. As their graduation date looms (and the numbers on their student loan statements become more real), they start to stress, and then they finally come into your office. For example, according to a survey on undergraduate engineering students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “more than 70% of students” who used career services were “juniors and seniors. On the other hand, freshmen (50%) and sophomores (38%) made up the majority of the non-user group.” One of the primary reasons students gave for not using career services was “No need to yet (I am not ready to utilize their services).” 

Of course, by the time students finally feel “ready” for career counseling, it’s more difficult to help them; they’ve chosen their majors, they’re mere months away from their diplomas, and they don’t have much time to squeeze in internships, seminars, or other productive activities that might better prepare them for the working world. 

The earlier students come into your office, the better. Career counseling is actually best leveraged as an early college activity, when students have more flexibility when it comes to their majors, extracurricular activities, and undergraduate work experience. The sooner students begin considering their vocational possibilities and planning ahead to achieve them, the better. This sort of head start can also help them earn more money when they graduate, allowing them to more quickly and successfully pay off their student loans. After all, part of what students are paying for when they go to a university or college are the valuable services you offer, so they ought to make the most of them from day one. 

In order to get freshmen into your career counseling office, you might try hosting seminars designed specifically for them, speaking with them during their orientation events, making announcements about career counseling during introductory level courses, or even making career counseling a mandatory component of your freshman curriculum.  

2. Help them understand their interests and personalities. 

It can be difficult for some students to pinpoint what they’re passionate about and decide how they’ll relate their interests to their professional lives. In addition, some students may not see the point of career counseling until they start linking their future jobs with the subjects they’re most fascinated by. For example, a student might love taking sociology courses, but never realize that he could apply the survey writing skills he’s learning to a career as a market research professional. Similarly, another student might enjoy her art history classes the most, but assume that she has to have a more “traditional” career as a doctor or lawyer rather than a communications professional for a museum. 

While career counseling is often about practical skills, like writing resumes, dressing well for interviews, or networking with potential employers, helping the student discover their interests and align them with the working world is even more fundamentally important. If they understand how their future job will actually fulfill them, they’ll be much more motivated to work on the logistics of preparing for and finding work. 

Did you know that interests are a high predictor of persistence, engagement, student success, and income attainment? Read more about the research behind this in our whitepaper. It makes sense right? The more you are interested in something, the more you want to do it and typically, the more successful you are at it. That’s why The Myers-Briggs Company has spent decades of research on this area in particular. The VitaNavis® platform was developed to guide students in discovering how their interests, personalities, and strengths align to majors and careers. This allows them to not only find a career or vocation suitable for them, but to also explore all areas such as education needed so they can create a plan for their future. At the same time, it is a solution that helps career counselors, advisors, and educators fortify their conversations with students while supporting them in building the skills they need to bridge the workforce skills gap that currently exists once they graduate.

Students who are able to find and pursue their passions are more likely to actively participate in their career counseling and advising, which can give them an advantage in finding a better fit job or career. While it’s not guarantee, this can lead them to jobs that will allow them to afford to pay their debts in the future.

3. Create clear academic and vocational pathways with your students. 

Once students have an interest-based goal in mind, we recommend collaborating with them to craft clear, actionable plans that help them attain their objectives. On the academic side, this involves planning their courses in alignment with their career goals. For example, if a student has decided she wants to work in digital communications, she may decide to major in media studies rather than English, since this may better serve her vocational goals. 

This type of career-oriented curricular planning helps students better manage their student loans in a few ways. Students with a designated academic pathway in mind may be less likely to change their majors. This can help them avoid taking unnecessary classes that prolong their time at school and therefore raise their bills. Furthermore, students with a clear pathway may be more encouraged to persist through difficult classes rather than dropping out, which would leave them with the student loan debt they’ve already accumulated but no diploma to show for their efforts (making it more challenging to find higher-paying jobs). 

You can also help students make professional plans in accordance with their goals so they don’t stumble after they graduate and delay starting their true careers. According to Harvard Business Review, one survey found that just “35% of the young adults surveyed…jump right into their career after college or are on a path to a successful launch after completing additional education.” The other 65% either “take their timeabout half of their twenties—to get their start in a career” or “press pause and spend most of their twenties trying to get their start” after college. These troubling trends contribute heavily to the current student loan crisis. The later graduates begin working in their chosen field, the longer it may take them to advance, earn promotions, and pay down their debts. All the while, they’re likely accumulating compound interest on their student loans. 

In creating vocational pathways with your students, you might recommend that they get pertinent internships over the summer, attend networking events in the fields they’re interested in, and develop the key skills employers in these areas look for. These activities will gear students up to enter their chosen careers as soon as they graduate, making it easier for them to earn promotions (and pay bumps) earlier in their careers than those that spend several post-graduate years figuring out what exactly they want to do. 

What all three of the above career counseling strategies have in common is that they’re proactive. With student debt on the rise, students need to be more prepared than ever to dive into the working world, begin fulfilling careers, and rapidly work their way up. Proactive career counseling can help them make the most of their educational investment and graduate ready to achieve professional prosperity. 

Three Career Counseling Strategies for the Age of Student Debt

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