Why It Matters that College Student Life Skills are Lacking

Students are arriving on college campuses lacking essential life skills. These skills are important to their ability to succeed academically during their college career, as well as personally and professionally as they prepare to enter the workforce after graduation. Unfortunately, developing these skills is often overlooked in higher education today. But incorporating student life skills training can help higher education institutions improve graduation rates, retention, job placement rates, and overall student wellness.

Defining “Student Life Skills”

Life skills, often also referred to as “soft skills”, are personal traits or behaviors, rather than technical knowledge. They are the interpersonal skills that apply in all facets of a student’s life, rather than specific “book knowledge” that may only apply to a specific career. In her book The Hard Truth About Soft Skills, author Peggy Klaus elaborates:

“Soft skills encompass personal, social, communication, and self-management behaviors. They cover a wide spectrum of abilities and traits: being self-aware, trustworthiness, conscientiousness, adaptability, critical thinking, attitude, initiative, empathy, confidence, integrity, self-control, organizational awareness, likability, influence, risk taking, problem solving, leadership, time management, and then some.”

“Life skills” is a broad term that covers a wide variety of traits. These skills can be difficult to assess, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that these skills are just as important to student success as hard knowledge.

Today’s Students Lack Soft Skills

Students are arriving on virtual or physical campuses lacking core knowledge and skills around critical topics. More focus is being placed on technical knowledge/skills rather than a broader liberal arts education, and both employers and educators are noticing.

Nearly 3 in 4 employers say they have a hard time finding graduates with the soft skills their companies need, and educators agree. Almost half of academic institutions believe that recent graduates lack life skills needed in the workforce.

Unfortunately, little is being done to grow these student skills. In a 2019 report, the Society for Human Resource Management found that 51% of survey respondents said that education systems have done little or nothing to help address the skills shortage. There continues to be pressure to focus on “book knowledge,” even though employers are more interested in interpersonal skills than GPA.

Why These Life Skills Are Critical to Student Success

Life skills aren’t only important in the workplace—they’re also important to helping students on their journey toward graduation. More than 40% of students who start college will not complete their degree, and those who don’t are disproportionately less economically privileged and more likely to be a racial or ethnic minority.

Students come to universities from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Some are more “college-ready” than others, but higher education institutions are being held more accountable for their students’ success and must shift to become more “student ready”. It’s not just about improving graduation rates; focusing on life skills can help all students thrive in and out of the classroom, before and long after graduation.

Developing Student Life Skills Can Lead To…

Student life skills are important for the college journey and beyond. These skills are associated with academic, professional, and personal achievements, and incorporating soft skills curriculum can help higher education institutions set students up for success.

Which Are Most Important?

The research is clear: life skills are important to student success… but which life skills are most valuable? The answer depends on who you ask.

One survey found that as jobs become increasingly automated, “uniquely human” life skills are becoming more valuable to employers. Some of these highly-demanded skills include:

  • Communication skills
  • Listening skills
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Interpersonal skills

As mentioned previously, another study found that five life skills were associated with economic success, social and subjective wellbeing, and better health in older adults. These five skills include:

  • Conscientiousness
  • Emotional stability
  • Determination
  • Control
  • Optimism

The bottom line is that a variety of life skills are essential to help students achieve success and wellbeing in their academic, professional, and personal lives. Some of these life skills can be taught through experiences in the classroom—such as collaborative group projects and communication studies—while others may require specific institutional efforts.

How Campuses Can Teach Student Life Skills

Because student life skills are important from the start, incorporating curriculum for first-year students can be especially beneficial. As campuses turn to virtual learning to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, developing these skills remotely can be a challenge.

To meet this challenge, many campuses are creating online modules accessible to all students that are specifically designed to teach a broad spectrum of life skills. For example, the University of South Florida offers modules covering topics ranging from financial literacy to mental health. One of these modules is Kognito’s newly updated At-Risk Mental Health for Students simulation, which teaches the skills and protective factors that can help universities get ahead of mental health issues and improve students’ ability to succeed through:

  • Positive coping skills
  • Help-seeking skills
  • Positive self-concept
  • Growth mindset

The skills acquired from At-Risk Mental Health for Students help set students up for success as they navigate college, embark on their careers, and develop professional and personal relationships throughout their lives.

The original At-Risk simulation has been adopted by 350+ colleges and universities to train over 300,000 students, and recent updates place even greater emphasis on life skills that today’s college students lack. It’s interactive, can be completed completely online, and uses the power of virtual humans to allow students to practice managing real-world scenarios in a virtual environment.

Learn more about At-Risk Mental Health for Students and access a free demo here.

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