There is always a sense of pride and accomplishment in the days leading up to a graduation ceremony, as students have worked hard to earn their degrees. Some students will continue their studies in graduate or professional schools; some may have job offers already lined up, and some may still be figuring out their next steps. Regardless of their plans, the post-college transition also typically includes some anxiety and uncertainty about life after college.
For most students, the uncertainty is tempered by parental or familial guidance and encouragement. However “independent” college students — which include those who are homeless, formerly in foster care, emancipated, or orphaned — face the added stress, doubt, anxiety, and sometimes depression associated with the weight of handling this transition alone.
Independent students must overcome many challenges just to get into college: lack of educational and housing stability in high school, lack of transportation, lack of knowledge of the application process, and the inability to pay application fees. They then face additional barriers to earning a degree: navigating financial aid, feelings of low confidence and self-efficacy, and financial concerns regarding stable housing, and adequate access to food, among other things. But the challenges facing independent college students do not stop once they cross the stage at graduation.
The focus of support for independent students has largely been centered around matriculation towards a college degree; however, much more needs to be done to support this population as they learn how to navigate life after college. We recognize this as an ongoing exploration, and understand that more research and intentionality in practice is needed. Thus, we believe it is time for us, as educators, to start the conversation, conduct the research, and better support this unique population of independent students to and through the post-university transition.
Below are three areas of support these students need as they prepare for their post-university transition:
1. Emotional Support
Independent students often battle feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety, sometimes as a result of grieving the loss of parental figures or through previous experiences of abuse and neglect. The challenges of navigating job searches, making financial decisions, and planning for future endeavors add to their stress. With the loss of psychological and other counseling services through their college or university, their mental health may worsen if they do not establish another support system or find ongoing care.
Ways to Help:
- Institutions can consider extending affordable psychological or other counseling services to those who qualify in the few critical months after college graduation.
- On-campus departments, such as advising and career centers, can collaborate to provide targeted support to independent students as they move through college and prepare for the post-university transition.
- Faculty members can go through training to better understand the struggles that independent students face as they move through and graduate from college.
- Higher education professionals who have knowledge of the challenges and struggles that independent students face can serve as mentors to independent students to provide emotional support and encouragement. Such relationships can carry on even after students graduate.
2. Financial Support
Independent students often lack the kind of basic financial supports that families typically offer their children upon graduation, such as stable housing, cosigning a loan, or cosigning a lease to rent an apartment. Independent college graduates often transition from a stable and supportive environment on a college campus to a stark and abrupt expectation of independence for which many are not financially, emotionally, or psychosocially prepared.
Ways to Help:
- Institutions may consider partnering with area nonprofits that provide affordable housing and adequate access to nutritious foods or other basic needs to support independent graduates in the critical few months after college as they continue their job search.
- Financial aid professionals should receive training to understand the nuanced needs of this population in order to know how to best serve and advise these students.
- Financial literacy workshops can be offered to independent students, both online and in person, to review basic budgeting strategies, how to fill out tax forms, and financial aid loan repayment options. Such workshops can also be a form of community building.
Things I wish I had known about the transition after college.
I wish I would have been taught how to find a place to live that was good for me. I would have loved to learn how to adult and what adulting really meant- Applying for your very first electricity bill, setting up appointments, what to look for in a bank/credit union, how to find a primary health care provider, what we should know about personal loans/student loans and paying them off, how to make a monthly budget, and how to do selfcare.
3. Career Guidance
Independent college graduates are more than twice as likely to live at or below the poverty level as their dependent counterparts. When independent students begin to face their uncertain future after graduation, they tend to accept the first job offer that comes their way, regardless of whether the position requires a college degree, or is a fair offer with benefits. Recent college graduates often struggle finding a job and may experience underemployment; those who are independent may not have the skills or the knowledge to negotiate a salary.
Ways to Help:
- Students should begin developing their resumes early in their college career, so that the process is less stressful in their final semester. Career centers, as well as faculty mentors, should be able to give sound advice about how to stand out on paper when applying for jobs.
- Job search strategies, including how to network with professionals in their respective fields, should be discussed at least 6-9 months before graduation. This gives students time to brainstorm the types of positions to which they want to apply, and the appropriate ways of targeting those positions, which should increase their chances of being employed upon graduation. Career centers also should be able to point students to specific job boards related to students’ majors and career fields.
- Topics surrounding self-efficacy, interview preparation, salary negotiations, and career management should be explored in capstone courses to increase the level of confidence for emerging professionals.
Advice for graduating students
I would advise to not just accept a job offer because of pay or bonuses a company will offer. Make sure you do your research when looking to work for a company or organization. I would advise to not settle for a job simply because of its availability and ease of access. Look for your career in an organization where they foster growth and development. As a nurse, I wanted to work in an urban environment where all the action happens, so I chose a hospital in Atlanta. My hospital offered a program specifically catered to new graduates entering the field of nursing. The process took a couple of months and I had to be patient. There were open house events, application deadlines, open interviews, and then specific unit department interviews. The process took months. I was offered immediate nursing positions with higher pay in local small town hospitals. I chose to decline because they didn’t offer those new graduate programs and most of the time when it comes to hospital work, higher pay usually comes with a catch. Those hospitals are mostly understaffed or their turn over rate is really high.
The authors of this blog are in the Higher Education Student Affairs (HESA) program at Western Carolina University.
Carrie Hachadurian, M.Ed.
Career Services Practitioner & May 2019 HESA Graduate
April Perry, Ph.D.
Director and Assistant Professor of the HESA Graduate Program
Sophia Calhoun, M.Ed.
May 2019 HESA Graduate