Digest No. 06 - June 2019

What Is the Impact of “High Impact” on College Students’ Early Careers?

Wolniak, G. C., and M. E. Engberg. 2019. “Do ‘High-Impact’ College Experiences Affect Early Career Outcomes?” The Review of Higher Education 42 (3): 825–858.


This study used the most recent nationally representative data set tracking college students into the workforce and provided new empirical evidence on the influence of several “high-impact” experiences (see Association of American Colleges & Universities 2007) on the early career outcomes of recent college graduates. Specifically, the authors examined the influence of five high-impact practices (undergraduate research, diversity/global learning opportunities, service and community-based learning, internships, and culminating senior capstone courses) on four early-career outcomes: earnings, job satisfaction, sense of commitment to one’s job, and continued learning and challenge in one’s place of employment.

The participants of this study were based on a nationally representative sample of 640 students who participated in the Educational Longitudinal Study (ELS 2002). Of that original sample, 596 college students participated in the 2012 follow-up study, and in doing so provided data that led the authors to suggest that early career outcomes were influenced primarily by collegiate experiences outside of the scope of traditional high-impact practices. Specifically, the three early career outcomes were associated with students’ majors, whether that major aligned with their early career choices, and graduate degree attainment. No high-impact practice shared significant relationships with all of these outcomes.


High-impact college experiences do not appear to be particularly influential across post-college outcomes—“a noteworthy finding, one that will benefit institutions by providing a clearer understanding of the importance of helping students select a college major and secure jobs related to their majors, over and above the influence of the kinds of ‘high-impact’ college experiences often emphasized within institutions” (p. 852). Of the five practices examined, none shared significant relationships with all of the early career outcomes.


That said, three practices were associated with increased occupational earnings. Students who participated in internships earned 4 percent more than their peers who did not. Similarly, students with study-abroad experience earned 5 percent more than their counterparts who chose not to study abroad. Interestingly, students who participated in an undergraduate research project reported nearly 7 percent lower earnings than students who did not have this experience—a finding that the authors attribute to these students’ increased likelihood of pursuing a graduate degree, “thus influencing their time in the workforce, possibly translating to lower earnings” (p. 844).
Only one other outcome was associated with participation in a high-impact practice: whether students continued learning and felt challenged in their place of employment was significantly related to their participation in a community-based project while in college.

Three noteworthy factors were related to early-career outcome achievement across the four areas. First, a self-reported indicator of whether students’ choice of major aligned with their current job was related, with greater alignment leading to greater achievement across these early-career outcomes. Also, students who attended graduate school were more likely to achieve these early-career outcomes. Finally, education majors reported significantly lower earnings but significantly higher rates of job-related satisfaction, commitment, and challenge when compared to majors in STEM fields.


Small college administrators continue to face an environment of resource scarcity; therefore, it is important to recognize not only the desirable effects but also the potentially limited influence of specific—and sometimes costly—college experiences such as traditional high-impact practices. This study has confirmed what others (see Johnson and Stage 2018; Mayhew et al. 2016) have also suggested: Traditional “high-impact” practices may not be highly impactful after all. Although administrators might be tempted to leverage such practices as competitive advantages for driving institutional enrollment, in truth, few of these practices are influential.
So what works? What helped students achieve these outcomes? It may be that the kinds of majors and career-oriented programmatic interventions known to “cultivate career decision-making efficacy, vocational identity, and major selection yield a more positive influence in the years immediately after college than internships, study abroad, and other programmatic offerings” (p. 852). Administrators may need to help students strategically align their curricular and co-curricular experiences with their desired career trajectories without prematurely closing off opportunities for learning and growth in areas that may benefit later career outcomes or life goals.
Officers in career services may need to develop a four-year approach to providing a developmentally appropriate curriculum for students. (CIC’s 2015 research brief Career Preparation and the Liberal Arts offers institutional examples of blending liberal arts education and career preparation.) How this curriculum is introduced and executed will certainly differ among and between majors. That said, results from this study suggest that career envisioning cannot and should not wait until the student’s third or fourth year.

About the Authors

Gregory C. Wolniak is associate professor of higher education, Institute of Higher Education, University of Georgia.

Mark E. Engberg is associate dean and professor of higher education, Morgridge College of Education, University of Denver.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U). 2007. PDFCollege Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education & America’s Promise (LEAP). Washington, DC: AAC&U.

Council of Independent Colleges (CIC). 2015. PDFCareer Preparation and the Liberal Arts. Washington, DC: The Council of Independent Colleges.

Johnson, S. R., and F. K. Stage. 2018. “Academic Engagement and Student Success: Do High-Impact Practices Mean Higher Graduation Rates?” The Journal of Higher Education 89 (5): 753–781.

Mayhew, M. J., A. B. Rockenbach, N. A. Bowman, T. A. Seifert, and G. C. Wolniak. 2016. How College Affects Students: 21st Century Evidence That Higher Education Works. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.