Skip to main content

The College-to-Career Transition in the Chicago Area

Students seated in rows wear graduation caps and gowns
Exploring student progress from higher ed to the working world, especially for low-income students
  • Client
    Circle of Service, CME, Crown Family Philanthropies, Gorter, Family Foundation, Chicago Community Trust, The Mayer & Morris Kaplan Family Foundation, Steans Family Foundation, and Pritzker Traubert Foundation
  • Dates
    2018 - 2021


Having a bachelor’s degree does not address disparities in career earnings.

Earning a college degree is expected to positively impact a person’s earning potential. However, research has found that career earnings are less for individuals with lower-income backgrounds than individuals from advantaged families even when they both have bachelor’s degrees. NORC and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research received funding from five Chicago-based organizations for an essential study on the college-to-career transition for students aged 18-24 in the seven-county Chicago area. It included a special focus on students with low-income backgrounds.


NORC and its partner investigated critical facets of college-to-career transitions.

NORC and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research zeroed in on three aspects of the college-to-career transition:

  • Degree attainment: Using administrative data from community colleges and four-year institutions, we explored the path to attaining certificates and degrees. More specifically, we looked at how many students who enrolled in a bachelor's or an associate degree program in the Chicago area earned a degree, how long it took them, and the disciplines they earned degrees in.
  • Transitions from college to the workforce: Using administrative data, the research team followed students as they left college for the workforce. We looked at the percentage of college graduates that were employed, the amount of time that elapsed between their degree completion and employment, the industries graduates were employed in, and their wages. Using survey data, we asked more about the quality of their employment. We also looked at how many hours per week they were employed, their employment benefits, and the extent to which employment aligned with majors or programs.
  • Job-search experiences: Using survey data, the research team examined the resources students used to locate employment. Among the unemployed or underemployed, we looked at the types of jobs respondents were seeking and in what industries as well as the challenges they faced. 


The study shed light on college-to-career transitions for young adults in the Chicago area.

Some of the key initial study findings were as follows:

Degree Attainment

  • The vast majority of survey respondents (about 88%) earned an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
  • Health and business-related majors were most common among graduates.

Transitions from College to the Workforce

  • Most respondents (64%) reported having had an internship.
  • Nearly half of the respondents were able to secure employment before graduation.
  • Overall, most reported that their primary job is “somewhat” or “very related” to their most recent higher education credential (69%).
  • More than half of the respondents reported having a job that provided traditional benefits, such as health insurance, paid time off, and retirement plans. Still, a third of graduates had jobs that did not provide the most common - and arguably the most important -benefit, health insurance.

Job-search Experiences

  • First-generation students were much less likely than non-first-generation students to report that family was useful in the job search (60% vs 70%). Pell grant recipients follow the same pattern (62% vs 66%).
  • Black graduates were more likely than other racial groups to report that they found help from people in their network useful in their job search. Notably, Black students were much more likely than white students to report that mentors (40% vs 25%) and alumni (54% vs 47%) were useful to them.
  • Overall, students reported having the most difficulty at the beginning and end of the job search process, with looking for jobs (41%), and receiving and negotiating job offers (45%). They found applying and interviewing for jobs less challenging.

Assistant Project Director

Explore NORC Education Projects

2023 American Law School Faculty Study

Reviewing law school policies and understanding the career pathways of law school teaching faculty


Association of American Law Schools

2024 National Survey of Early Care and Education

Examining early care and education after major disruption


Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Department of Health and Human Services