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Why Employers Should Seek To Learn About Graduates’ ‘Return On Experience’ After College


Gregory P. Crawford is President of Miami University of Ohio.

The global pandemic that transformed the future of work is also changing the future of higher education. An emergency shift to remote learning in March 2020 has revealed both the potential of online education and the benefits of life on the college campus. From my perspective as the president of a university, I expect lessons from Covid-19 will likely boost hybrid approaches, flexibility, flipped classrooms and not-yet-imagined pedagogical innovations.

Still, I believe a wholesale shift to online-only is less likely than predicted in the pandemic’s early days. Younger generations seek meaningful experiences, not mere transactions. The stay-at-home orders of Covid-19 have only intensified this desire for experiences, especially shared ones.

Campus life is rich with opportunities for exploration, engagement and collaboration that instill vital skills and mindsets, so, naturally, some might overlook their value. Students can grow in terms of their character, capacity to collaborate and particular skills that transfer directly to the workplace. There’s a “return on experience” that enhances the return on investment.

For potential employers, when a resume indicates on-campus life, co-curricular activities, club leadership or a residence hall assistant job, you should also seek to learn about value-added qualities the candidate gained that will elevate their performance and your organization’s environment.

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Here’s why:

Growth In Character

For the traditional student who attends college soon after high school, the college experience is central to their transition to adulthood. These are formative years. Going away to college is a significant step toward adult independence, self-reliance, time management and personal responsibility. An on-campus student will likely have more choices, fewer rules and greater freedom than they did while at home during high school.

However, they will also have more structure and built-in support—from dining halls, health centers, career counseling, tutoring, faculty mentoring, etc.—than they will have after graduation. In addition to these intentional structures, campus life offers opportunities for encounters with intelligent, curious, creative people from various backgrounds and identities, races, cultures, socioeconomics, religions and political views. Many students even pursue opportunities to study abroad.

This might be the first time some students have met individuals so different from those where they grew up and so different from stereotypes they might have heard. They might question, confirm or amend their values, beliefs and understanding of their place in society. They might learn others’ histories and participate in others’ celebrations. As such, they can enter the workforce naturally disposed to appreciating and embracing diversity, equity and inclusion. These experiences and relationships are preparing them for communities and workplaces different from their childhood and adolescence assumptions.

Growth In Relationships

In order to sustain meaningful relationships, students often learn—sometimes from trial-and-error—and practice a host of personal and social skills that can make them influential team members and citizens throughout life. Many must learn negotiation, compromise, flexibility, sharing and conflict resolution. They must develop strong emotional intelligence, learn to manage their own emotions and respond appropriately to others’ feelings. Many students also learn to communicate clearly and ensure each person understands the same meaning from words that might carry different weights in different cultures.

They will eventually experience misunderstanding, disappointment and failure, and they must learn to overcome such challenges on their way to success. As the circle of relationships expands, students learn the value of networking and how to practice it.

Growth In Leadership

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Many groups on campus organize into formal structures, such as intramural athletic teams, student government and personal-interest clubs. These offer opportunities to practice vital elements of leadership, such as organization, scheduling, articulating a goal, assembling a team, delegating, budgeting, managing conflict, developing strategy and more. Some students take jobs as resident assistants or join research teams to gain firsthand leadership experience.

This voluntary exercise, again, naturally accumulates a host of skills and experiences that can transfer directly to the workplace and the person’s broader life. These students often have the support of mentors, peers and institutional structures, and if they fail, they can learn to persevere or pivot. They engage with diverse individuals and competing ideas. They see the impact of their leadership in real time and enjoy the satisfaction of accomplishment and growth.

Evaluating The Return On Experience As A Potential Employer

The “education” section of an applicant’s resume typically focuses on academic issues such as the person’s program, degrees and research experience, but as you can see, a graduate who lived on campus has experienced many dimensions of learning through living in such an environment.

An alert interviewer engaging with a new graduate should probe the return on that experience, perhaps asking not just about their co-curricular activities, residence hall life or club leadership roles, but also how those experiences transferred into life and career skills. For example, you might say:

• “Tell me about a conflict that arose in your residence hall or student organization that you helped resolve and how.”

• “What did you learn about yourself from living and interacting with so many people from different backgrounds, experiences, cultures and perspectives on campus? Give an example of a conversation that helped you grow.”

• “Tell me about an occasion where you participated in a team project as a leader or member of the group. What did you learn about leadership and yourself?”

• “Tell me about a time, in the residence hall or as a student leader, when you had to negotiate or compromise to find common ground and a path forward?”

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From critical thinking and empathy to collaboration and conflict resolution, the conversation might illuminate powerful skill sets that some take for granted as part of their college years. The interviewer can recognize the value of their skills for the position and the organization.

These personal, experiential elements of an individual’s life on campus can prepare them for the world and workplace of the future just as their classroom learning and laboratory research prepare them for particular careers and roles. Employers should seek to learn about the skills and mindsets graduates obtained in this unique environment, as curiosity, exploration, learning, sharing and support will become even more valuable as organizations evolve to address the rising priorities of their customers and colleagues.


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