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Incoming students to the University of Cincinnati are about to test drive “Bearcat Promise,” an enormous effort by the institution to craft a stronger ecosystem to better support student success and satisfaction from orientation to graduation.
The rollout represents not only new tools but also a philosophical shift and commitment by the university to all students that they will graduate with a degree in one hand and a career plan in the other, says Caroline Miller, vice provost of enrollment management. Gone are the days, she says, of students arriving at commencement still wondering about their career path.
Challenged by UC President Neville Pinto, Miller has overseen the interdisciplinary team that developed the Bearcat Promise pathway as part of the university’s new strategic direction known as Next Lives Here.
“This is really a commitment to our students that we will provide the resources, the tools and the expertise to co-design their future,” says Miller. “A career choice is not as simple as the major you choose. Knowing the purpose behind your plan will help students graduate and stay on time.”
About 2,500 first-year students from four UC colleges — the Carl H. Lindner College of Business; the College of Engineering and Applied Science; the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning; and UC Blue Ash College — will be the first to get the keys to Bearcat Promise during orientation, which begins May 31. The rest of campus will come onboard starting in the fall as more than 8,000 first-years (likely another record class) start classes at UC.
As part of Bearcat Bound orientation, students will now be handed an iPad to begin building their “My Graduation Plan,” a resource that allows them to map out all the courses to their degree, check on progress and, importantly, adjust on the fly as academic and career goals shift. If they are considering dropping courses, changing majors or studying abroad, for example, their graduation plans will show the impact of that decision beforehand. In addition, their plan will reveal industry data, including salary, for the career they are targeting.
“There is a real expectation that colleges and universities need to be good in this space,” says Miller. “We are on the leading edge with this, particularly for an institution our size.”
Students will also enroll in Handshake, a LinkedIn-like digital career-management platform that allows them to access part-time jobs, internships, co-ops and even volunteer gigs that align with their major and provide experiential learning. The tool allows the university to vet the opportunities and allows students to upload their resume and details.
Kasey Drennen, UC’s director of orientation, has been intimately involved in building Bearcat Promise from the ground up. He says one of the keys to making it successful is having earlier intentional conversations with students about their goals to help them craft their plan.
Drennen says pockets of UC have been exceptional at helping students design their future for years. He points to the successes of such areas as UC’s Honors program, Gen-1 and athletics at helping students build and stick to their academic plans.
“For some we do a great job of talking to students from the very beginning,” he says. “They know all the resources and opportunities. They can connect the dots whether inside the classroom or outside the classroom. Through technology, we can expand this concept to all students.”
He says the key is coordinating the tools where students interact with the institution, then using the vast amount of data collected to their benefit.
“Amazon knows what I want to buy before I do,” he says. “As we look at artificial intelligence and machine learning, we see a lot of possibilities. We are pretty good at descriptive data, and we are getting better at predictive data, but we are working toward prescriptive data.”
Drennen says a smarter system will free academic advisors to have more effective conversations with students — focus less on the nuts and bolts of what they are taking and more on important “why” questions to be sure they are striding toward their actual goals.
One of the major challenges of Bearcat Promise is incorporating learning outcomes that are specific to career education into the hundreds of programs available at UC. In other words, the goal is to assure that if a student is pursuing a particular program that their formal education actually exposes them to all the skills they will need to be successful on the job. That would include the traditional hard skills — math and writing, for example — as well as the soft skills — such as leadership, communication and teamwork — which may not appear on a transcript.
“We have been doing this with co-op students for a long time, but I just do not think we widely applied it to students in other disciplines,” says Michelle Clare, senior director of UC's Experience-Based Learning and Career Education, who also helped develop Bearcat Promise. “The fact that we are building in these requirements into every student’s general education, that is unique. That is not something you will see at many institutions, especially large public research institutions like ours.”
She credits the work of the team led by Gigi Escoe, vice provost of undergraduate affairs, for tackling the learning outcomes project, which is also clearing the way for Co-op 2.0, itself a Next Lives Here initiative. As part of Co-op 2.0, the university is re-envisioning all aspects of experience-based learning with the goal of every student, not just those in formal co-op programs, graduating with hands-on experiences from all sorts of professional interactions — internships, volunteering, part-time jobs, co-ops — that make them even more career ready.
Chandler Rankin, undergraduate student body president, is excited at the possibilities with Bearcat Promise and what it will mean to students at UC.
“I think it takes graduating from a top public research university to the next level,” he says. “Not only do you have that piece of paper in your hand that represents your journey, but you have a clear understanding of where you can go next. Success for Bearcat Promise will be getting students to understand the power of their degree and all the options that are available to them through professional experiences and better understanding what their employment opportunities look like.”
He says students spend much of their college career trying to figure out where they’re headed, and as long as Bearcat Promise comes with the flexibility that allows students to change course, then he’s all for it.
“If we could find a way through Bearcat Promise to develop a scalable solution across our university to develop these personalized plans for all students, then that could be powerful,” says Rankin. “Seeing that our leadership is dedicated to students and improving their experience is refreshing. I’m excited to see the long-term impact.”
Next Lives Here, the University of Cincinnati’s strategic direction, defines our moment and our momentum. More nimble and more robust than a plan, Next Lives Here announces our vision to the world—to lead urban public universities into a new era of innovation, impact, and inclusion.
Experience UC's Bearcat Promise yourself. Apply to UC or learn more.