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Guest Post: UMKC Chancellor Agrawal: How We’re Showing the Value of Higher Ed by Taking Students Beyond the Degree

By C. Mauli Agrawal

These days, higher education has something to prove.

From statehouses to family homes, our constituents are asking hard questions and voicing more doubt than in any recent decade about the value of attending college. The COVID pandemic heightened the disruption of higher education. And the good news of historically low unemployment means many students are heading into the workforce and wondering if they even need a degree.

Most would agree that knowledge and education still have intrinsic value, but many of our stakeholders seek a more tangible ROI. For our highest-priority stakeholders, our students, the desired return is less about a B.A. or a Ph.D., and far more about a j-o-b, and a good-paying one at that.

Especially for those of us in the public land-grant sphere, most young people come to us to launch a professional career. At the University of Missouri-Kansas City, we have developed a comprehensive program focused on meeting that demand: our Professional Career Escalators program.

Career Escalators offer a unique bundle of services for students, providing early on the support team and resources needed to align a student’s academic journey with future career goals. We believe the combined features and goals of the program make it unlike anything currently offered at any other college or university in the United States.

The Escalators offer applied learning opportunities and career-tailored mentorship for students interested in careers related to one of four tracks: health care, education, business/engineering or law/justice. Students in all majors are welcome to apply.

This work is a clear part of our mission. As a public university serving an urban population, we have a moral obligation to view student success in both career and academic terms. We view breaking the cycle of generational poverty as a mission as urgent as that of educating students. The Escalators program is designed for all admitted students, but it is built on research and best practices that support UMKC goals to increase retention and graduation rates of underrepresented, first-generation and Pell-eligible students.

According to The Uncertain Pathway from Youth to a Good Job, a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, today’s young adults need more high-quality work experience than previous generations to get a foothold in a professional career track. The study calls for specialized interventional programs to “help young people—especially those who are most marginalized by the education system—pursue and attain their education and career goals simultaneously using career exposure and work-based learning.”

That’s what our Career Escalators do. Upon arrival at UMKC, students in the program start receiving access to career guidance and development, mentorship, applied and hands-on learning opportunities, leadership development and preparation for admission to advanced graduate education or credentialing. The program also offers a $2,500-per-year on-campus housing scholarship so that students who choose to live on-campus can live in a dedicated living/learning community.

The Career Escalators program is the centerpiece of UMKC Forward, our innovative answer to how we plan to not only survive but thrive in the face of the disruption currently facing all of higher education. We embarked on UMKC Forward at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of hunkering down and retrenching, we wanted to use the pandemic challenge to inspire ourselves to reach for a bold new future.

That new future became reality this fall when we welcomed the first cohort of Professional Career Escalator students to campus in advance of the start of Fall Semester 2022. In addition to the faculty teaching their courses, students work directly with a Career Escalator staff led by an experienced educational professional with an extensive background in career development.

With Career Escalators, we will demonstrate how a college education provides a tangible economic individual benefit while advancing critical social and educational goals.

C. Mauli Agrawal is Chancellor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City

  • Student Success in Focus

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