Career services are a social justice issue for colleges

Mark Smith

COVID has worsened higher education’s enrollment losses—with the National Clearinghouse Research Center finding that enrollment saw an especially steep decline, a drop of 5.9 percent, this spring. And the economic challenges of the pandemic have resulted in some institutions cutting costs and services to students.

The career center, however, is not a good place to look for savings. The promise of higher education depends in part on helping students get a good first job on their way to a rewarding career. And as higher education works to enroll more first-generation, underrepresented minority, and Pell-eligible students, economic mobility has become a critical social justice issue for institutions.

Students need career advice and guidance, not just another internet black hole of jobs and internships. They need a personalized approach to career development, particularly the most vulnerable students. More than ever, students, and their parents, need institutions to provide the same personalized guidance that higher education provides in the admissions process. That means support looking for internships, experiential learning opportunities, and apprenticeships. Additionally, they need personalized instruction on early-career development, networking, and support on breaking into the job market.

Matt Small

As institutions prepare for the future, now is the time for higher education to empower the career center to provide that guidance. Universities need to develop ways to make career considerations more than an “opt in” add-on for some students, to better ensure that all students are using the services to improve their career outcomes. It is no longer enough to settle by just serving students with certain majors or well-connected parents, or to rely on graduates just having good luck. Our most vulnerable students don’t have the luxury to wander after graduation as they try to “figure it out.”

Unlike job boards and other tools, a robust career center provides students with a personalized experience that can tangibly guide them to the right internship or job opportunity. In our collective experiences in talking with students nationwide, as head of Symplicity and as a former associate vice chancellor and dean for career services at Washington University in St. Louis, we think it is critical to require students to engage with their career journeys early. Students need to start their iterative career-design thinking process with a knowledgeable guide as they begin their college career. And we know it works.

According to Gallup, students that rated their career services experiences as “very helpful” were 5.8 times more likely to strongly agree that their university prepared them well for life after college, and 3.4 times more likely to say that their education was worth it and that they would recommend their university to others. In fact, for many students who are low-income, first-generation, from a minority group, or who have a disability, the career center may be the first source of job advice they ever get.

At a time when diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the forefront of companies’ recruiting efforts, it is critical that universities continue to meaningfully engage with students who could fall through the cracks. Career centers are in the business of equity, by helping disadvantaged students get the access and social mobility that sets them up for the future.

With an innovative, collaborative approach, universities that offer integrated and mandatory early-career planning as part of the academic experience are ahead of the curve and more likely to last through the coming years. The future of work is already here. And students and parents increasingly are demanding more out of higher education to prepare students for jobs.

Yet, many colleges and universities are cutting resources to the career center, risking the elimination of the enhanced student experience that comes with an understanding of the needs of the whole student. This includes networking, alumni relations, and helping guide students to internships and jobs that best fit with their interests and skills—at a time in their lives when many students are uncertain about what they want to do. The career center doesn’t just look at students as a number, they see the students for their full potential.

Steering students to platforms where they apply to hundreds of jobs isn’t going to get students to the right job. Instead, they become overwhelmed and end up wasting time applying to jobs in the internet abyss, making them more discouraged at a time when mental health concerns for young adults are at an all-time high. For liberal arts graduates in particular, the job market appears to be best for those with a certain skill set.

But career center leaders and staff know that employers are looking for smart, hardworking employees who can adapt, learn, think critically, and excel, regardless of their major. And they can help students translate their coursework, extracurriculars, internships, and more into language employers understand and that enhances a student’s chances of landing the best opportunity for them. An algorithm or generic job board cannot do that. 

As universities navigate what “returning to normal” looks like, we hope university leaders understand the necessity of having a robust career services center that goes beyond measures of university success to support students holistically, well after they leave campus.

Mark Smith is former associate vice chancellor and dean for career services at Washington University in St. Louis. Matt Small is president and CEO of Symplicity, a company focused on the employability of college students.

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