College students’ thoughts on AI and careers

Some students—like those studying in the University of South Florida’s Muma College of Business Center for Marketing and Sales Innovation Customer Experience and Behavioral AI Lab—are already being exposed to how artificial intelligence can help them in the workforce. The lab uses various technologies to measure brain waves, eye movements and otherwise understand how humans respond to a variety of stimuli. Students then get opportunities to apply these insights across settings, sometimes in partnership with commercial businesses or government agencies.

“Students are learning and applying state-of-the-art skills and participating in research,” says Rob Hammond, center director, “that will make them more employable at graduation.”

But even beyond such specialized training, nearly three in four students say their institutions should be preparing them for AI in the workplace, at least somewhat. So finds a new flash survey of 1,250 students across 49 four- and two-year colleges from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse’s Student Voice series.

Here are the survey’s main takeaways.

  1. AI is impacting what students plan to study, especially newer students.

Asked how much the rise of artificial intelligence has influenced what they’re studying or plan to study in college, 14 percent of students over all say it’s influenced them a lot. An additional 34 percent say it’s influenced them somewhat.

By year, the Class of 2024 is least influenced in this way, with just 35 percent of students saying AI has affected what they’re studying or plan to study, either a lot or somewhat. The Classes of 2025 and 2026 are incrementally more influenced, while the majority of the Class of 2027 (64 percent) says AI has at least somewhat impacted their academic plans. This difference may make sense in light of the buzz around generative AI within the last year. Two- and four-year college students in the survey report being equally influenced by AI in this area.

But student major, gender and financial aid status all appear to factor in. By field, just 7 percent of arts and humanities students say AI has influenced what they plan to study, compared to 15 percent of natural sciences students, 17 percent of social sciences students and 22 percent of students identifying as having interdisciplinary majors. By gender, 20 percent of male students say AI has significantly impacted their academic plans, versus 10 percent of women and 4 percent of nonbinary students (there are insufficient responses to show for certain other demographics). And by financial aid status, 60 percent of students with no financial aid say AI is influencing their study plans, either a lot or somewhat, compared to 45 percent of students receiving financial aid.

Another key difference: 52 percent of continuing-generation students say AI is influencing what they plan to study, either a lot or somewhat, compared to 41 percent of first-generation students.

  1. AI is impacting students’ career plans.

Similar to how students say AI is impacting their academic plans, 11 percent of students over all say that the rise of AI has significantly influenced their career plans. An additional 31 percent say it’s influenced their career plans somewhat.

By year, the Class of 2027 appears most impacted, with 61 percent saying the rise of AI has affected their career plans, either a lot or somewhat (just 31 percent of the Class of 2024 say this, as do 41 percent of the Class of 2025 and 51 percent of the Class of 2026).

Gender appears to matter, as well, with 52 percent of men in the study saying AI is impacting their career plans, versus 35 percent of women and 35 percent of nonbinary students.

Yet again, there’s no significant difference between four-year and two-year students’ responses, while relatively more students without financial aid (51 percent) than with (41 percent) say they’re influenced by AI in this respect, either a lot or somewhat. Relatively more continuing-generation students (46 percent) than first-generation students (34 percent) also say AI is at least somewhat impacting their career plans.

  1. Most students say their institutions should be readying them for AI in the workplace.

Nearly three in four students say that their colleges or universities should be preparing them for AI in the workplace, either a lot (27 percent) or somewhat (45 percent). Newer students are again more likely than soon-to-graduate students to expect AI preparation, with 81 percent of the Class of 2027 saying their institutions should be preparing them at least somewhat. Yet even 66 percent of the Class of 2024 say this. By major, students in the arts and humanities are a bit less likely to say so (66 percent) than students in the social sciences (78 percent). In the natural sciences, the share is 70 percent, and among interdisciplinary majors, it’s 71 percent.

By gender, 77 percent of men say their institutions should be readying them for AI and work at least somewhat, as do 69 percent of both women and nonbinary respondents.

Some 76 percent of continuing-generation students expect their institutions to ready them for AI and work at least somewhat, compared to 66 percent of first-gen peers.

  1. Students are seeking both ethical and practical AI training.

As for just how institutions should be preparing them for AI and work, the No. 1 priority, to students, is being taught the ethics of using AI, with nearly three in four students choosing this. The No. 2 choice (62 percent) from a list of five options is prioritizing teaching core skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving. This is presumably to build skills that make students’ would-be jobs more resistant to AI. A close third choice is teaching the ins and outs of using AI, meaning students are also eager for practical training (60 percent).

Just 28 percent of students say their institutions should prepare them for AI and work by encouraging career paths that are less likely to be impacted by AI. These results are relatively consistent across student subgroups and institution types, including gender, major and first- or continuing-generation status.

M’hammed Abdous, assistant vice president for teaching and learning with technology and director of the Center for Learning and Teaching at Old Dominion University in Virginia, says the responses are “a strong indication of the transformative potential that AI is registering with students.” Respondents over all seem “rightly aware of how AI is reshaping the job market in so many different areas.” Abdous cites reports suggesting that up to 40 percent of current jobs are potentially replaceable by AI, adding that even jobs that won’t be displaced will still be subject to change due generative AI’s power to reshape work.

At the same time, “AI will also stimulate demand for new skills that require human ingenuity, creativity, empathy and ethics—things that AI cannot do,” he adds. Regarding the related Student Voice findings on what training students want, Abdous says that students are again “right on target.”

Abdous suggests colleges and universities consider doing the following:

  • Conduct a thorough analysis of current curriculum and degree offerings to ensure their continued relevancy.
  • Identify careers that are and will be disrupted by AI and update the relevant curricula accordingly.
  • Include AI in every program to guarantee that students are exposed.
  • Offer multidisciplinary programs that address different aspects of AI, including in computer science, data science, ethics and English.
  • Build lifelong learning pathways for students to continue building their knowledge after graduation.

Suzanne Helbig, associate vice provost of the Division of Career Pathways at the University of California, Irvine, says that institutions can adopt “intentional practices to cultivate a continuous-learning mindset and critical thinking skills that will future-proof their students.” This means providing more ways for students to connect what they’re learning in the classroom to the world of work and equipping faculty and staff members to help students “identify and articulate their transferable skills for future roles.”

Institutions should harness workforce data and industry connections to inform curriculum and program development, she adds, plus “resource and elevate campus career services to address the top reason students seek higher education: to advance their careers. The proliferation of AI and its effects on the future of work makes career services an even greater institutional imperative.”

What actions has your institution taken to help ensure students are considering AI when planning for their future careers? Share your career prep tips and advice here.

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