A conversation with Wake Forest’s Andy Chan

Andy Chan’s ideas about the importance of what happens to college students after graduation sounded revolutionary 12 years ago, when he first arrived at Wake Forest University. 

From their first days on campus, students should be exposed to career paths and begin thinking about how to translate their education into jobs, said Chan, who is now vice president of innovation and career development at Wake Forest.

Chan later drew notice with a 2013 TEDx talk, dubbed “career services must die,” where he described rising anger among recent college graduates about their lack of preparation for the job market.

The problems Chan identified, as well as many of their solutions, have gone mainstream in recent years. The following is a condensed and lightly edited version of a conversation with him about what’s changed for career development in higher education, and what’s next.

Q:  Why do you think your 2013 TEDx talk touched a nerve? What has changed in the eight years since you gave that talk?

Andy Chan: The TEDx talk got a lot of people really thinking about what our students and alumni are really feeling and experiencing—and maybe they aren’t actually getting everything that they had hoped. Some schools really did try to make some changes, whether it be to get a lot of funding to help rebuild their career offices, or to hire different leaders and staffing for their career offices. But for the majority, not that much really happened. There hasn’t been that much dramatic change across the industry.

There are definitely points of light that you can see. Either at the very grand level, like Arizona State University, Western Governors University, or Johns Hopkins University. Really big, significant moves forward. And there are many where they’ve gotten great funding, whether it be the College of William & Mary or Wellesley College. Or Wake Forest University—we raised a lot of money to help support a lot of change. But with 5,000 schools total, we’re talking about a couple hundred. Lots of the others are still in a place where they are either similarly resourced or less resourced than before, because of the pressures on universities.

Q: What’s driving the recent interest in career development?

Chan: This whole area is being more discussed for a couple reasons. The data show that part of going to college is actually to determine where I’m going to head in my life and career, especially my first job and how I get started. And then for some reason, when they go to school, that conversation ends up being extracurricular or non-existent. And all of a sudden they’re left in a situation where they’re wondering, what do I do now? One of the biggest and most interesting challenges is how do you make this core to the student experience. And the more closely aligned it is the academic experience, if not totally integrating the academic experience, the better it is.

Handshake is now the dominant virtual recruiting platform that connects students with employers and with career services. And so there’s all this data that’s being generated that we’ve never seen before. And there’s all these network effects that are happening between students and employers. And there’s power in this, in terms of connections that can happen, that we’ve never had before.

There’s a second big piece, which is that diversity in all forms is being more honored by employers and universities, with more intensity and commitment. Employers are saying, ‘I’m not going to just look at my core schools. Now I can actually use Handshake and go across the whole landscape of all the schools and find students who might be from different schools and even different academic or regional backgrounds. So I’d love to try to recruit that student in a personalized way that before we couldn’t do.’

There hasn’t been as much change as we would’ve liked. But we’re at an inflection point where it feels like things are about to change a lot. There is change happening and it is evolving, but we can’t see it all the time. I feel like we’re in Chapter 2 of a 20 chapter book and that we still haven’t hit that point where you start to go, this is really accelerating. You actually are still on the part where this is still bumping along and I’m still trying to figure out what’s happening and who the players are—figuring out the landscape. And sadly, it’s taken 10 years to go through those first two chapters. 

Q: Are more institutions focusing on the faculty role in connecting careers and academics?

Chan: It is a huge challenge to try to figure out how to make this more integrated into the academic experience. And faculty will be the ultimate deciders as to whether that’s okay at their institution or not. At a university the kinds of things that the leaders tend to be concerned about, there are fires related to the culture on campus, the student experience, the faculty experience, the staff experience. You’re trying to make sure all that works during Covid. So being able to focus on other things beyond that, it can be challenging. We also know that a lot of universities were under a lot of financial pressures even before Covid.

One way that you can come at it is a refinement of the overall curriculum. That’s really hard. There are many schools who have that conversation and it doesn’t get voted through, or it partially moves forward. So a lot of times, a huge curriculum redesign is difficult. So then it breaks down into maybe different departments that are willing to experiment. And we sometimes don’t recognize that universities are made up of a lot of different units. And I know we talk about them as silos, but the reality is that’s just the way they’ve always been constructed. We try to find who are the units where there are faculty and faculty leaders who want to experiment with this, whether it’s because they see this as being the right thing to do, or whether it’s, ‘Hey, if we do this, we’ll get more students who want to come to our major.’ Either way, that’s the way that the experimentation is happening.

This whole idea of helping students navigate from college to the workforce really drives a bunch of things. One is student success. The students see themselves as more successful. The second is that alumni employers are more loyal to your university because the students are actually feeling successful and they become successful alumni and they want to recruit at the school. There’s this virtuous cycle. And then you start to see positive revenue streams on your enrollment and fundraising because, happy alumni: you get more fundraising. You help them get better careers: more fundraising. If you actually show that you have great outcomes with your students, you get students who want to come to your school. But if you don’t talk about these things, students will be finding the school that does. 

Q: To bring back the book analogy, what’s going to happen in the next few chapters?

Chan: Corporations are going to get into this game. So the workforce-to-education game is going to become one where there are going to be new options. Students can say, ‘wait, I don’t actually have to get my four-year degree. I could go to work and get it at the same time. Or I could do a bunch of certificates and get it. I could go to community college or trade school where I could become an electrician or a plumber and build myself a million-dollar business.’

There will be some bumps along the way. But it’s actually moving in the right direction. Change is going to come. And it actually is going to be good, but it’s going to be different. And we’re going to have to be courageous to handle the fact that’s going to be uncomfortable.

We’re going to have to find ways to educate students, especially students from underrepresented backgrounds, to know how to make good decisions about all these choices. So they don’t get taken advantage of and have institutions that are making a good promise but not really fulfilling it. We want to make sure we’re really holding people accountable.

Virtual is here to stay. Data enables us to identify where we’re successful and where we’re not. Technology makes personalization and scale possible. Diversity always matters and it’s all kinds of diversity. Work-related experiences and career-readiness curriculums are being better integrated into the overall student experience, but we’re really at the experimental stage.

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