Why Your College Degree Isn’t Enough

How CGI America and Opportunity Network are making a positive impact on African American youth

college degree
(Image: iStock.com/Susan Chiang)

CGI America, the U.S.-focused division of the Clinton Global Initiative, addresses significant domestic challenges through what it calls Commitments to Action. Many Commitments to Action, if not most, are carried out through cross-sector partnerships.

CGI America recently held its annual conference, out of which several exciting big ideas in education have emerged. Once a week over the next several weeks, BE Smart will explore one of the big ideas that resulted in a CGI Commitment to Action.

Have you heard of career fluency? I love that term, because it’s so apt; possessing the fluency or skill to intelligently select and prepare for a particular career path. Opportunity Network, an organization that works with low income youth of color, extends the college conversation from access to persistence to career development.

The brainchild of Founder and CEO Jessica Pliska, Opportunity Network works to equip youngsters with the knowledge they need to chart their own professional course. A guiding principle of the organization is the belief that a college degree doesn’t imply acquired career skills.

In its CGI Commitment to Action, Opportunity Network is partnering with essential schools and community based organizations across the country to scale up its work and expand its impact. I recently spoke with Pliska about it:

BE: What is Opportunity Network’s CGI Commitment to Action?

Pliska: We are going to get 100,000 low-income students across the country career fluent. We will create access for those students to the information, skills, guidance, and social capital they will need to get trained in career development and career preparedness, so they can compete after college.

BE: At what age are you working with these students?

Pliska: Ninth graders through college seniors. We do some work with middle schoolers. You can’t start too early. We’re trying to compensate for student experiences where they haven’t had 18 years of exposure to the workplace and careers.

BE: What is career fluency?

Pliska: We look at four main things.

  • College degree, which is necessary, but insufficient.
  • Career awareness and exposure, so students can make informed choices about what they want to do and how to get there.
  • Professional etiquette, [which is] the full range of workplace norms: e-mail etiquette, phone etiquette, professional dress, and internship readiness.
  • Curriculum about networks and social capital; this is unique to us. It’s an acknowledgement that 80% of us get our jobs through people we know.  Students who aren’t learning how to build relationships and leverage them to give back to their networks are going to be at a disadvantage.

BE: How long have you been doing this work?

Pliska: I started in 2003. Our core fellows program is an intense, six-year program that we developed over 13 years.

About four years ago, we started doing partnerships with college access organizations, which formed the basis of the students we’ve committed to reach through the CGI Commitment. Everybody realizes now that college access is not enough. We’ve been saying for years that we’re continuing to be shortsighted by considering the degree the final destination; that career skills are not an implied outcome of college graduation.

It’s not possible to separate career from college, and so those partnerships are how we’re looking to scale and extend our impact nationally.

BE: Is salary a consideration?

Pliska: We are absolutely helping to nurture careers—whatever those careers are. The idea is that students should do what they’re interested in, but we do practical work to help them understand the limitations and opportunities of things like salary.

Paid internships are important to us, so pay is a part of this conversation.

BE: Is all of this teachable?

Pliska: Yes. We are helping our students understand that they have control over their own destiny. We’re not saying to them, ‘You need networks, and we’re going to introduce you to networks.’ From the first day of class, we say you have networks. Draw your network map—it’s your family, school, church, community, volunteer work. Now it’s about building that network out to develop a network of support in college or your field of interest, or giving back to your network, which is really important. So it’s about leveraging what they already have.

Eighty-five percent of our college graduates secure career-track jobs or graduate school admission within six months of graduation; 100% graduate from college within six years.

Our core program works with 180 schools and community-based organizations. The students are high performing, high need. They’re doing well in school, but an A in a New York City public school is like a C in a private school or a suburban school.

In our partnerships, the students run the gamut, because philosophically we are committed to the idea that everyone should have career readiness, not just students who are high performing.

BE: Why is this problem prevalent among children of color?

Pliska: Career undermatching is prevalent among children who are low-income or from under-resourced communities. It’s due to a lack of exposure in their families and communities.

If you don’t grow up around people who are doing a diverse array of jobs in fields of interest to you, you’re not going to know about them, and therefore you’re not going to pursue them. Lack of access and exposure creates a lack of opportunity.

BE: How important are the partnerships in your CGI Commitment to Action?

Pliska: The most critical aspect of our ability to make and keep this commitment is our partnerships.

In our commitment, we’re working to increase the number of students we’re serving in our direct-service program in New York and to expand the partnerships with like-minded organizations.

We’re not swooping in to save the day; we’re training teachers and frontline staff to integrate the curriculum which we’ve customized for them in such a way that it is tied to their desired student outcomes.

We literally couldn’t have this impact without the partner organizations.

To learn more about Opportunity Network’s CGI Commitment to Action, visit this site. To explore Opportunity Network’s website, go here.