October 21, 2017

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In the College and Career Information Gap, Libraries Could Make the Difference | Higher Ground

When I was in fifth grade, I began making a list of the colleges I wanted to attend. My own public middle school library didn’t have any college guides—nor did my public high school library. Our school guidance counselors were overwhelmed by the more immediate social and emotional needs of our classmates. College planning simply wasn’t a part of the conversation in my small blue-collar district.

I’d had a library card, however, since I was old enough to write my own name (in fact, getting a library card was the incentive for me to learn how to write my name) and I remember spending hours poring over college guides from the Bethlehem, PA, public library.

Libraries have always opened doors to other worlds, but increasingly, libraries are also opening doors to the world directly around us. As neutral and natural community centers, libraries offer a safe space to be curious, and libraries are taking advantage of their role as information experts to offer guidance around college planning, financial aid research, and work.

As product marketing finds its way into more and more places in our daily lives through sponsorships, paid promotions, promoted tweets, and influencers, helping people who are at a transition point in their lives make informed choices provides  libraries a real opportunity. In the information age, our biggest challenge isn’t finding information, it’s sorting through it. What are librarians expert at doing? Sorting through information.

What Guidance Counselor?

For too many people seeking postsecondary education, the decision is based more on exposure (“Oh, I’ve heard of that school…” or “My cousin went there…” or “Ooooh, baby, that’s where I want to go, too! I want us to go to college together.”) than a clear understanding of quality, course of study, or cost. The truth is that, unless you are wealthy enough to hire a private college counselor, college choice isn’t much of a choice at all. If you work with traditional college-age populations, listen to the way they talk about college. They have no idea how to make this decision. Luckily, libraries can help.

The Boston Public Library, in partnership with the nonprofit American Student Assistance, offers in-person college selection, financing, and financial management help. While it’s easy for libraries to aggregate web resources online, a more proactive, face-to-face approach facilitates the connection and accountability that people in this period of transition need in order to succeed. Seeking community partners like American Student Assistance or College Advising Corps to provide subject matter expertise helps libraries offer this support to users in a safe, welcoming space.

College isn’t the right path for everyone, however, and work choices are no better informed than college choice. The careers we are exposed to are the most visible public and commercial sector jobs, as well as the jobs held by our family members. How do you know that you might love research and development if you’ve never heard of that as a job? And, perhaps more crucially, if you’ve grown up surrounded by people who work in low-paid retail jobs, how do you even know what well-paying jobs are out there and the kind of preparation you need in order to qualify to be hired for them?

Career Seekers Welcome

Thirty million job seekers utilize libraries for help each year—and the vast majority of libraries provide some kind of career support, through online databases of guides and interest evaluations to free personal coaching, resume review, networking help, and even just free public internet access, critical for job-seekers who might not have these tools at home.

The Queens Library in New York City, for example, houses the Job and Business Academy, which provides a critical link to job training, technology classes, and entrepreneurial development. The Academy offers individual counseling and workshops— available free of charge to anyone with a Queens Library card.

Libraries have managed to maintain their trusted reputations even as every other major institution is being called into question. This gives libraries incredible potential to serve patrons who might not otherwise receive the attention and assistance they need to make good choices for their futures.

What does or could your library do to support students’ life journeys? Share your ideas in the comments below!

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Susanna Williams About Susanna Williams

Susanna Williams is the founder of BridgEd Strategies, a management consulting practice. Previously a program officer with the Postsecondary Success initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, she began her career as a K-4 teacher before becoming a K-12 administrator.

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