Preparing Students for the Workforce: Why College Falls Short

Colleges and universities are meant to prepare students for the workforce, but do they? We look at why college seniors fall short and what can be done to help.
Tamara Mathias
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When asked why they pursue a college degree, the most common answer shared by 58% of learners of all ages is job and career outcomes. 

Students go to college expecting a job at the end of their degree, but soon discover that they’re pretty much on their own when it comes to securing employment. Higher Ed does not take ownership of job outcomes for students and simply isn’t structured for career preparedness that aligns with the expectations of employers.

In this article, we’ll delve into why academia as it exists today is misaligned with the needs of industry, and what students and higher education leaders can do to bridge the divide between education and work.

Does college prepare students for the workforce?

It depends on who you ask – and it really shouldn’t. 

In a Gallup poll, 96% of chief academic officers at universities said they believed their students were prepared for success in the workforce. That number stands in stark contrast to the mere 11% of business leaders who agreed when asked the same question. There is clearly a major disconnect between the worlds of education and work, and graduating students seem to bear the brunt of it. 

Traditionally, internships were intended to bridge the skills gap between classroom and office. And while they continue to be an integral part of the transition from student to employee, there are far fewer internship opportunities available than students who need them. This is the case for a number of reasons, not all listed below:

  • There’s been over a 25% increase in college graduates in the last decade according to the National Center for Education Statistics;
  • But the number of entry-level roles have not increased. Instead, they’ve actually decreased with over one-third of entry-level roles now requiring at least 2-3 years of experience;
  • Businesses are not incentivized to offer internships simply so students can upskill themselves; they offer internships as a way to hire for the few select spots that are available.

As a result, there is immense competition for available opportunities - and it’s clear who’s significantly disadvantaged versus advantaged for the select opportunities. First-generation students, those from underserved communities and smaller schools tend to be at a significant disadvantage whereas those who study in elite or private, not-for-profit universities tend to have an edge. 

Ideally, colleges should incorporate work experience into curricula and make it an integral part of getting a degree so every student graduates with real-world skills they can leverage in the workplace.

How universities came to be and where they are today

Why is higher ed structured the way it is? Isn’t the whole point to prepare students for careers? To fully answer that question, we must revisit a medieval system of education that birthed many of the modern practices of imparting knowledge that we are familiar with today.

The origin story of universities & college systems

Apprenticeships were an age-old tradition of education in the ancient world that allowed young people to work alongside a master and build expertise in a new trade. This was an entirely transactional relationship; while young apprentices were given the chance to hone skills they would otherwise never have been able to perfect, their mentors benefitted from valuable labor.

As learned society developed, the upwardly mobile exchanged hours spent whittling wood or working a forge for nobler pursuits - theology, philosophy, law and medicine - giving rise to Europe’s most ancient universities.

Several of these were closely affiliated with religious institutions and aimed to educate the upper classes, who typically focused more on estate management than on traditional employment. As a result, curricula were designed to align with these goals. Therefore, it is unsurprising that many practices in contemporary higher education remain rooted in historical traditions emphasizing theoretical knowledge, literacy, and liberal arts.

13th-century universities on the continent licensed guilds to teach prescribed texts that culminated in the award of a degree titled “master” or “doctor”, which signified a student’s admittance into the teaching profession.

But here’s the catch: the bachelor’s degree was never meant to be more than a mere stage toward mastership, a signaling of the completion of the first stage of academic life. Fast forward to the 21st century, where a four-year college degree has been ingrained as the gateway to a secure future, despite the increasing irrelevance of theoretical study in modern business.

How Higher Ed has evolved

College has transformed into a critical life stage where young adults cultivate independence, develop time management and social skills, build networks, and explore their passions and potential impacts on the world.

  • Today, higher education institutions provide opportunities to meet people from diverse backgrounds, fostering idea exchanges and collaborative research.
  • They increasingly recognize the importance of workforce preparation and some programs now include experiential learning opportunities such as co-ops.
  • Curricula are constantly updated to equip students with the latest knowledge and tools relevant to their fields, keeping pace with industry developments to some extent.
  • Career centers are enhancing their support for students through industry partnerships, campus fairs, resume workshops, and more, aiming to facilitate successful transitions into the workforce.

How Higher Ed has not evolved

We've often heard that college should be accessible to everyone, providing equal opportunities, and leading to the best job prospects for graduates. However, the reality is quite different. Tuition costs are skyrocketing, far outpacing inflation rates. Many college curriculums are failing to adequately prepare students for the workforce. Moreover, top universities tend to monopolize the best opportunities, leaving others at a disadvantage.

  • Tuition costs: The increasing cost of tuition is making college education inaccessible to many individuals. According to data from the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2020-2021 academic year was $10,560 for in-state public colleges and $37,650 for private colleges, representing a significant financial burden for students and their families. As tuition costs continue to rise, affordability becomes a pressing issue, limiting access to higher education for students from low-income backgrounds and exacerbating socioeconomic disparities in educational attainment.
  • Poor bridge to work experience: It is still not the norm for universities to integrate work experience into their degree programs. While some educators have been working to incorporate experiential learning into the university experience so that graduates can leverage job-ready skills when they step into the working world, these opportunities fall short of industry demands and they aren’t standard for all students.
  • Getting hired is on students: Students are pretty much left on their own when it comes to finding work experience during their degree - despite data being clear that employers are looking for work experience even among new graduates. An analysis of 95,363 job postings revealed 61% of full-time "entry-level" positions require at least three years of experience. A high GPA and a strong academic track record might have been enough to receive a job offer straight out of college in the past, but today’s employers are more keen to see evidence that a candidate has problem-solving and communication skills and some real work experience before committing to a full-time hire.
  • Inadequate career services: Compounding this issue is the inadequate funding for career centers and a glaring lack of coordination between these centers and academic departments. This results in students receiving generic career guidance and insufficient support in securing internships, further underscoring the need for reform. To shed light on the current landscape, we conducted a survey within our network of over 300 college students to ascertain how they secured their first internships:
  • 37% found their first internship through an online job board.
  • 25% found their first internship through a family or friend network.  
  • Shockingly, less than 20% credited their colleges with helping them secure an internship.

Why Career Services falls short

Most students go to college to get hired at a good job, so it is worth examining the role career centers at universities play in making this happen. Career centers in the higher education ecosystem have traditionally been known as the office where students go to seek advice from counselors about their long-term career plans. It is mainly their responsibility to connect  employers to their institution’s student population.

Yet, fewer than 20% of undergraduates reach out to their school’s career centers for advice on finding jobs or identifying and applying to graduate programs, although such advice ranks among a center’s most valuable services, according to a 2017 Strada-Gallup survey.

With families increasingly questioning the ROI of a college degree and student debt rising far above inflation, it is more important than ever for career centers to establish themselves as the best pathway to high-quality work experience opportunities and an important driver of student enrollment. This means making investments that clearly translate to employment outcomes for students.

Here’s why university career centers typically fall short of equipping students for a competitive job market:

  • Severe Underfunding: A study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that the average student-to-career staff ratio at colleges is approximately 1,889 to 1… yes almost a 2000 to 1 ratio. Is it any surprise that career center workers have no hope of providing personalized guidance and support to students?
  • Non-Specialized Staff: To effectively cater to the skills and interests of different students, career center staff needs to be constantly clued in on the latest trends in industries and rapidly changing needs in job markets. Instead, they operate with general and often outdated information, which can hinder their ability to offer industry-specific advice and connections.
  • Administrative Focus: Most career centers have evolved into administrative hubs, primarily organizing events and interviews rather than offering in-depth career counseling and job placement services. While important, these services do not substitute for individualized career planning and industry-specific networking opportunities.
  • “Superficial” Industry Partnerships: Career fairs heavily advertise the companies they’ve attracted to their career fairs, but often miss the mark, bringing in HR reps rather than industry professionals that students need to connect with. They also spend more time on bringing in programs like “one-day case study competitions”, that are engaging and fun for students, but not as useful as actual job opportunities. Students who go to career fairs or seek out career services want to speak to the people who are doing the jobs they are considering after graduation or for an internship. 

Students today are incredibly savvy. They don’t need to look beyond YouTube and TikTok to learn best practices for writing the perfect resume. But they do need their universities to offer individualized counseling and broker better career pathways for them.

So is college worth it?

Despite the problems with our current Higher Ed system, we say yes. 

To play off an oft cited Mark Twain quote, reports of the college degree’s death are greatly exaggerated. 

While some large organizations like Google, Accenture, and IBM have dropped their degree requirements for certain technical roles, this is more an indication of fields like software development where there is higher demand for experience. And while you might have seen headlines that more than half of jobs no longer need 4 year degrees, reporting shows that many companies who waived college as a requirement, still prefer to hire college graduates. 

Long story short, a degree is still preferred for the majority of careers. If nothing else, it signals to employers that a candidate was willing to commit to a multiyear goal that involved being driven and organized, building social, communication and presentation skill and actually completing a challenging, long-term endeavor.

The value of a college education remains a nuanced topic, contingent on individual goals and the evolving job market. While the cost of higher education continues to rise, the benefits—such as higher lifetime earnings, greater job stability, and enhanced critical thinking and problem-solving skills—still make it a worthwhile investment for many. 

However, success is no longer exclusively tied to a traditional four-year degree. Vocational training, apprenticeships, and online courses offer alternatives. And just because college is still a viable route to employment and economic mobility today, it doesn’t mean it will continue to stay relevant if it doesn’t evolve.

The main reasons a college degree still pays off are:

  • Access to More Opportunities: Despite some companies dropping the 4-yr degree requirement, most employers still prefer college graduates over non-graduates. 
  • Higher Lifetime Earnings: According to a report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, individuals with a bachelor's degree earn $2.8 million on average over their lifetime, which is 75% more than those with just a high school diploma.
  • Greater Job Stability: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that the unemployment rate for individuals with a bachelor's degree was significantly lower than for those with just a high school diploma. As of February 2022, the unemployment rate for people 25 years and older who had graduated high school but not gone on to college was 4.5%, while those with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 2.2%.
  • Strong Networking Opportunities: The social network fostered at university can prove to be immensely valuable. Engaging with individuals from diverse backgrounds facilitates the exchange and exploration of ideas, broadening one's perspective.
  • Developing Academic Expertise and Worldviews: College still offers the chance to delve into academic pursuits and contemplate contemporary philosophical questions encourages the formation of innovative ideas and the development of unique worldviews.  

Where college seniors are falling short

College seniors often face hurdles in their transition from academia to the professional world, primarily due to misaligned priorities and inadequate preparation. It’s hard to juggle classes, tests, clubs and internship or job applications with staying healthy and having an active social life. Still, senior year only comes around once and it is important not to get caught up in the details, but zoom out and look at the forest as well as the trees.

Here are the top three mistakes college seniors tend to make:

  • Prioritizing things employers don’t care about: The education system has spent years teaching students to focus on achieving high grades and participating in extracurriculars, but while this is commendable, prioritizing them over opportunities that offer the chance to build practical skills can be a mistake. 
  • Not customizing resumes for targeted roles:  A common misstep is the creation of a one-size-fits-all resume, rather than tailoring their CVs for specific roles to better match job descriptions and highlight relevant skills.
  • Underselling work experience and industry skills: Recruiters care most about work experience and how students have built skills that can be applied on the job. It is worth spending extra time and effort effectively showcasing work experience with examples and relevant keywords on LinkedIn and practicing before job interviews. 

What about microcredentials and online courses?

Here’s the harsh reality about microcredentials: nobody ever got hired for earning a Coursera, edX, or Linkedin Learning certificate. 

Upskilling is commendable, but recruiters are mainly focused on assessing whether potential candidates have the skills and experience that will make them successful in a role. That often translates to work experience.  The problem is, if you’re a college student just starting out, how are you supposed to get that experience in the first place?

Microcredentials were supposed to offer a new path forward. They are great ways to flexibly learn a skill and invest in your development. But the truth is employers want to see that students can apply skills in a real-world context. Students need to look beyond online certificates and find ways to demonstrate job-ready skills.

Why not just get an internship?

There just aren’t enough internships to go around, and access to existing internship opportunities is highly inequitable.

The imbalance of employment demand and student demand for careers

Historically, internships have always been more accessible to students at big schools with large campus fairs that attract Fortune 1000 brands. Those who study in expensive cities like New York or San Francisco are also typically at an advantage when securing jobs at major Wall Street firms or Silicon Valley brands. And the greatest privilege of all – tapping into alumni networks or friends and family who can push a resume to the top of a pile – is usually reserved for those whose circumstances allow for such connections. A first-generation college-goer or an international student at a smaller school often lacks the networking reach of their more privileged peers.

Data from Gallup suggests that the top reason cited by bachelor’s students who have not had an internship is the difficulty in obtaining one.

This matters because:

  • Internships continue to be a key driver of early talent recruitment. A poll from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) indicated that  80% of employers believed internships provided the best return on investment (ROI) as a recruiting strategy, compared to career fairs, on-campus visits, on-campus panels, or other activities. From the employer’s perspective, internship experience is often the deciding factor when employers are evaluating two otherwise equivalent candidates.
  • About 60% of paid internship opportunities turn into a job offer for students, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
  • Research from Gallup has shown that recent graduates who had a job or internship relevant to their degree while enrolled were more than twice as likely to secure a good job immediately after graduation.
  • Only 11% of business leaders consider college graduates prepared for the world of work, which is why employers prioritize candidates who can demonstrate job-ready skills and work experience on real industry projects over those who cannot.


So what can students do?

It is important for students to prioritize building practical work experience during their time at university. While this is easier said than done, it is worth finding ways to get work experience early on, start the hunt for internships well before junior year, networ and join clubs that might help build skills to attract recruiters. 

And of course, students can always apply for Externships to test-drive career paths and build foundational work experience with mentorship.

The Extern solution: enter the Externship

Remote Externships were designed as a pivotal solution to bridge the divide between education and industry. 

By offering real-world experience in a professional setting, externships provide students with invaluable insights and practical skills that academia alone cannot. They are a vital conduit for emerging professionals to navigate the complexities of modern employment landscapes, where "entry-level" positions paradoxically demand up to three years of prior experience. (An analysis of 95,363 job postings revealed 61% of full-time "entry-level" positions require at least three years of experience.)

Why remote Externships work for companies

In today's competitive business landscape, companies are constantly seeking innovative ways to engage with early talent and assess their potential impact on the organization. Remote Externships have emerged as a highly effective solution that can be offered at scale, giving companies a range of benefits that traditional internship programs often lack. Here’s why remote Externships are a game-changer for companies:

  • They’re fully-managed: A significant reason that employers offer limited internship opportunities for students is that their employees simply don’t have the bandwidth to manage interns. By partnering with Extern, companies are able to increase the number of opportunities they offer early talent by 500x, while reducing the time commitment required of their own teams by 80%. Externships are a low-lift, high-impact way to assess early talent by engaging them on expert-led projects. 
  • Employer Branding: By engaging large teams of students on real-work projects, companies are able to share their culture and positively impact the next generation of corporate leaders with a positive brand experience.
  • Tapping into Insights at Scale: Externships are always based on real business projects, allowing teams within companies to generate valuable insights at scale from a fully-managed group of expert-led student consultants. 
  • Pre-internship Funnel: It is expensive to expend resources on “risky” candidates, which is why company internship programs are limited. Extern helps companies cut the cost per student engaged by 60%, while reaching up to 500X the number of students that a typical internship program can accommodate.
  • Reach More Diverse Candidates: Companies do care about diversity and inclusion. They’d love to attract candidates from non-target schools. But with limited resources, it’s natural that companies optimize recruiting efforts in “tried and tested” ways. If “target schools” are where they’ve hired quality candidates for decades, then that’s where they’ll continue to invest. Even large companies only visit a limited number of campus fairs and face geographical restrictions when attracting candidates. By engaging with Extern and our huge global network of students, companies can attract candidates via an accessible, flexible, remote program and engage students that would never make it into their regular hiring processes.  

Why remote externships work for students

In today's competitive job market, gaining practical work experience is essential for students looking to stand out to potential employers. Remote Externships provide a unique opportunity for students to acquire real-world skills, enhance their resumes, and explore various career paths. Below are some key benefits of remote Externships:

  • Real Work Experience: The most important piece of real estate on a student’s resume is work experience. Externships offer students a chance to experience real work with real brands that boost their resumes, while equipping them with job-ready skills that employers care about.
  • Flexibility: Externs put in 10-15 hours a week to work on a real company as part of a cohort. On average, Remote Externships have a completion rate of 80%, far exceeding the 13% average for online courses that candidates otherwise turn to to upskill. And unlike internships, which can usually only be completed during the summer, students can do 4-8 week remote Externships all year round, on their own schedules.
  • Accessibility: Because of the way they are designed and run, it is possible for companies to offer far more externship opportunities than internships, making it easier for students to get accepted into an externship program. Externships are also designed to be delivered as a mentor-led, educational experience making them ideal for students who have no prior work experience to build fundamental skills like time management and presentation. Given that they’re remote, all students can access top externship opportunities no matter where they live or study. 
  • Boost Employablity: Inequitable access to internships and a competitive job market often means that students struggle to demonstrate the skillset that recruiters are looking for. Externships offer a flexible pathway to gaining industry experience that is far more relevant to a career path than an online course, microcredential or part-time job in an unrelated field.
  • Test-drive careers: The higher education system as it exists today offers students a very limited understanding of their future career might actually look like, and even what options are available to them. Externships are a way to test-drive different options before committing to a longer term internship or full-time role. Students gain a nuanced understanding of exactly what it is like to work on an analytics or marketing project.

Externships: the great equalizer

Externships are optimized for a company’s time and designed to be expert-led, educational work experiences. That’s why they stand to become an integral part of the future of both higher education and work.

Their remote and flexible nature actually democratizes access to early work experiences that go on to significantly shape career paths and economic mobility of new graduates.


All students can apply to them, whether or not they go to a top school, study in an urban location or have strong alumni, family or friend networks to help their get started. 

This inclusivity, coupled with their scalability, allows companies to connect with a broader array of candidates than traditional internships would permit.

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