For young people, getting a firm hold on the first rung of the career ladder has never been easy. Add on the disruptions of COVID-19 and the path to college and a good job can seem even more daunting, with particular barriers for students who are low-income, underrepresented minorities, or the first in their family to attend college.

In Chicago, Pathways to Adult Success partner National Louis University (NLU) is using a unique blend of data, personalized coaching, and career development experiences to help underserved students overcome these barriers and graduate with the skills and connections they need to thrive in the workforce. Results so far are promising and suggest the model may be worth replicating elsewhere.

Since 2015, NLU has built up its Pathways program with the goal of providing underserved students with a supportive, flexible, and affordable path to a bachelor’s degree. Pathways offers students a four-year degree program built around well-defined career pathways that include business, hospitality, computer science, social and behavioral sciences, and education. With annual tuition approximately $10,000, students who qualify for state and federal aid often attend without out-of-pocket expenses and graduate debt-free.

Key to the Pathways model is flexibility and personalized support. Each student has a success coach and faculty and coaches meet regularly to monitor progress and coordinate support for students facing challenges. Besides their general education and major coursework, students participate in career readiness coursework and are required to complete an internship prior to graduation.

This holistic support has opened pathways to fulfilling careers for many of Chicago’s historically marginalized young people. In 2020-21, about 44% of NLU’s 3,873 undergraduates were in the Pathways program; over 82% of Pathways students were Pell grant eligible and 80% were first generation college goers. Nearly 95% were historically under-represented minorities (75% Hispanic and 18% African American).

Adjusting to COVID-19

Before the pandemic hit, much of the coursework for Pathways students was already online, so increasing virtual learning was not a major hurdle. However, COVID had a big impact on the internships and service learning essential to NLU’s career readiness model. Many internships were simply canceled, especially in the hospitality industry.

“Like most institutions, we had to shift quickly,” says Dr. Abiodun Durojaye, NLU’s executive director of career services and placement. “We worked with employers to increase the number of virtual opportunities because, for us, it was about, ‘how do we emulate what is happening in the current world so that students are getting those authentic experiences and skills they’ll need in the workforce?’”

As part of its pivot to virtual internships, NLU received a 2020-21 PAS Design Challenge stipend to help compensate students engaged in unpaid internships with local nonprofits.

NLU staff also provided opportunities for students to practice virtual interviewing and other skills for the new world of remote work. Yet for many students, obtaining sustainable employment during the pandemic remained elusive.

“A lot of employers were telling us how great our students were at doing their jobs, but that they lacked some soft skills,” says Dr. Durojaye.

To bridge this gap, NLU piloted a Career Readiness Endorsement (CRE) for students in the computer science and information systems (CSIS) program: “boot camp” sessions where students focused on developing career skills, such as salary negotiation, working with people from different backgrounds, and conflict resolution. Additionally, there were sessions to help students overcome “imposter syndrome” and build confidence.

The sessions were a collaboration between NLU faculty and staff and employer partners. Students completing the program received a career readiness endorsement and, upon applying to participating employers, were guaranteed interviews. By graduation, ten of the fourteen June 2021 CSIS graduates, or 71%, had landed jobs in their field—compared to about 42% of their peers.

Importantly, the CRE sessions are not just for students’ benefit, but are also an opportunity to encourage employers to reevaluate their hiring and recruitment strategies, says Dr. Durojaye.

“So how do we encourage partners to look beyond the GPA? Students have so much tenacity and grit that they bring in – we’re working with students and employers to translate that to the workforce.”

What’s next for NLU? There are plans to expand the CRE beyond computer science and into the business and communications programs. More broadly, the university aspires to increase in physical size to accommodate its growing student population and expand monitoring of long-term alumni outcomes. Currently, NLU staff contact former students for six months following graduation, but they are seeking to develop a more robust system so they can evaluate program impacts on alumni careers over several years.

One thing is certain: whatever challenges they encounter, NLU students have a team of expert staff in their corner, dedicated to supporting their success in careers and life.

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Focus of Organization's Work

NLU’s mission is to provide a rigorous, technology-enhanced, affordable college education in a supportive environment that respects diversity, in order to help all students meet and surpass their personal, academic, and career goals.

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