College career services are ailing—networks are the cure

To be engines of economic mobility, colleges need to focus less on providing basic job information and more on helping students build professional networks, writes Julia Freeland Fisher of the Clayton Christensen Institute.

For decades, the message we’ve sent to young people has been clear: go to college to improve your career prospects. 

But as it turns out, there’s a gap—sometimes a wide one—between earning a degree and getting a job. Especially one that pays off. 

Julia Freeland Fisher

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, nearly 40 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed. In other words, they are working in jobs that don’t actually require their hard-earned degree. At the same time, students who are first in their family to graduate college earn a fraction of what their peers whose parents attended college make. Pew Research Center found that households headed by a first-generation college graduate had a median annual income of $99,600 compared with $135,800 for households headed by those with at least one parent who graduated from college. 

What’s happening on college campuses to address this disconnect? The short answer is not nearly enough. For too long, campuses have largely left students to their own devices, offering only a small, underfunded office to support their futures: career services. In their current state, most career services offices are ill-equipped to tackle the opportunity gaps that underlie employment and wage gaps.

College career services suffer from low capacity, low usage, and low utility. Average student-to-staff ratios are laughable, with an alarming one career services professional to 2,263 students, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). It’s hardly surprising, then, that Gallup found that only 43% of students deem their career services helpful. At the same time, large swaths of students are either unaware of or underwhelmed by the offering in the first place: only about half of college grads report having visited their career services office at all, according to Gallup. 

Career services weren’t always so anemic. Historically, many played an actual job placement function. In the 1950s, they made their mark by matching GI Bill grads with opportunities in the booming economy. 

But in the ensuing decades, as college enrollment expanded significantly, that commitment to job placement gave way to a more diffuse mission. Career services today operate with an open door policy, providing students who come to them with information to go out and find their own jobs. 

That halfhearted approach misses what most students need. As broader swaths of the population have gone to college in hopes of a brighter future, today’s college students— particularly those enrolled in non-selective institutions, working and commuting, and first in their family to attend college—require more than generic advice or opt-in guidance to put their degrees to work. They need access to networks. 

Half of all internships and jobs come through personal connections—connections first-generation students or those from low-income households often don’t have, and often don’t build during college. And according to research by Strada Education Foundation, only about 1 in 5 first-generation seniors reported networking with alumni or other professionals in their fields of interest compared to nearly a third of continuing-generation students. 

Access to a network doesn’t just mean knowing people who can share job postings or provide references—critical as that may be. Stronger networks can also afford students access to advocates and mentors who can help them make sense of how their interests align to various professions and provide specific feedback as they start to apply and interview for roles.

Luckily, leaders and faculty are starting to explore what it will take to ensure that more students graduate with the networks they need to get the jobs they want. To increase access to things like work experiences, high-touch mentoring, and deeper alumni networks, some colleges and universities are integrating career services more expansively across their entire enterprise. These initiatives—like the one at Johns Hopkins University—often sit in the president’s cabinet, relying on significant leadership and resources.

At the other end of the spectrum sit initiatives like a weekend networking academy at Cal State Fullerton, led from the ground up by faculty. Those efforts often operate outside of traditional university channels—making them more open and nimble, but short on funding.

Both approaches hold their own promise—and highlight potential paths forward for universities rethinking career services from the top down or the ground up.

Designing lives at Johns Hopkins

A student walks on the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University. (Courtesy of JHU)

One of the boldest university-wide experiments is underway at Johns Hopkins University, which the institution has dubbed Life Design. The concept is rooted in one man’s vision: Farouk Dey, who came to JHU from leading Stanford’s office of student affairs and career exploration. 

As Dey had watched classes of bright, ambitious students circulate through his office, he saw two ingredients buoying some graduates into successful careers and lives: an “audacious move after a moment of inspiration” and mentors who encouraged them to take an uncertain and risky path. 

But he also saw how inspiration, connection, and a willingness to take risks prove unequal goods—even on elite college campuses—where experiences like internships sit on the periphery of the academic core. These experiences are often accessible for those students who have the time, networks, money, know-how, and confidence to take advantage of them. 

“Privilege does play a role in our accidental moments of inspiration. It does influence our access to mentors,” Dey explained in a 2019 TEDx talk. “When systems put the onus on the individual to seek mentoring and to seek experiences that can transform their lives, we end up with a culture of haves and have nots.” 

In Dey’s estimation, students from families with deeper pockets and broader networks are engaging in designing their lives throughout their education journey, not just searching for jobs in their final semester. Wealthier students can take on the risks of an unpaid internship or can afford to not work while studying abroad. In turn, when it comes time to secure a job, those students have already had plentiful at-bats to explore their passions. For low-income and first-generation college-goers, those decisions look very different: 

“The idea of taking risks is not that easy if there are other life circumstances students are worried about,” said Dey. 

To cure those divides, Dey’s vision of Life Design at JHU has been to engage all students, particularly those students from low-income households, first in their family to attend college, and students of color, in immersive experiences throughout their time on campus. In addition to radically expanding access to experiences like internships and study abroad, the Life Design initiative focuses on relationships. “Life purpose cannot be planned or predicted,” Dey explained in his TEDx talk. “It is lured out of hiding with the help of mentors and the right mindset.”

To that end, every student is assigned a mentor, often a JHU alum working in a field related to students’ interests. Dey sees mentors as serving a few key functions: encouraging students to explore and take risks; mitigating those risks by offering wisdom, warm introductions, and even financial support; and role modeling for students what a career journey can look like. 

Arming students with immersive experiences and mentors is paying off:

  • Over the past five years, JHU has nearly doubled student satisfaction with career supports.
  • It has closed career outcome gaps between first-generation and continuing-generation students, and between white students and students of color, as measured by the First Destination Survey.
  • It also has significantly lessened gaps between low-income students and their more affluent peers.

Some top-tier colleges and universities are taking a similar tack to Johns Hopkins, not just rethinking how to structure “career services” per se, but integrating career exploration and experience across the student experience.

For example, Colby College’s president boldly issued a jobs guarantee to graduates on the heels of COVID’s hiring halt, and the college continues to expand access to work, study abroad, and research experiences through its DavisConnects initiative. At Wake Forest, where the head of the Office of Personal and Career Development has vocally advocated that career services “must die,” students engage in ongoing “personal career development,” accessing a broader array of supports connecting students to employers and mentors, and enlisting their administration and faculty in those efforts. 

Promising as these holistic, campus-wide approaches are, they remain the exception rather than the rule. Especially at lesser-resourced college campuses. 

It’s those lesser-resourced campuses, however, that serve the majority of first-generation and Pell-eligible students. On campuses unable or unwilling to overhaul their approach, more modest programs supplementing career services, and drawing on resources and networks beyond capacity-constrained campuses and career centers, could move the needle further, faster on equitably connecting students to careers. 

Across the country, at California State University, Fullerton’s business program, Professor David Obstfeld is building one such approach. 

Opening up networks at Cal State Fullerton

The campus of California State University, Fullerton. (Courtesy of CSUF)

Obstfeld’s brainchild, Social Capital Academy, began in his own classroom. He realized that many of his students in their final semester had yet to make plans for what came next. More troubling, Obstfeld says, was the lack of exposure they had to the very worlds they were hoping to break into.

“Students in my capstone were graduating without having had a single conversation with someone in the industry in which they had majored or hoped to get a job.”

Dismayed, Obstfeld began to build something that could fill that conversation gap: a series of brief, virtual, group coaching sessions hosted on Zoom over the course of four Saturday mornings (when his students were least likely to have work obligations). He recruited volunteer coaches and mentors from across his own personal and professional network, hailing from corporations, nonprofits, and other colleges and universities.

Those volunteers are people that Obstfeld’s students might otherwise not meet, but who can prove pivotal in helping them see their own strengths and plan their next career moves.

For example, Olga Golding attended her first academy session in 2022. At 37, Olga is what many people call a “nontraditional” student. She’s a single mom who immigrated to the U.S. from England, where she’d held a cosmetology license for 20 years. But the board in California wouldn’t approve her.

“I knew I had to go back to college,” she said. “But this time I didn’t want to study nails again. I wanted to study something that I felt like I could utilize for my future.” 

As part of SCA, students like Golding learn how to tell their personal stories to potential employers, often focusing on the resilience and strengths they’ve had to build by growing up on the wrong side of opportunity gaps, and their ability to multi-task across work, college, and home. It’s also an opportunity to meet and build relationships with professionals in their desired fields.

Because of her interest in business and entrepreneurship, Golding was paired with a particularly inspiring mentor, professor Robert Eberhart from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. After one class with him, she quickly took him up on his offer to be a resource and started connecting with him one on one. And, as it turns out, Golding and Eberhart have a lot in common.

“I come from an immigrant family too,” Eberhart said. “My family were coal miners from the Ukraine. I know Olga has had unique and difficult experiences. Leverage them to gain advantage because you’ve developed emotional resilience and an intelligence about people.” 

His example has encouraged Golding. “He said that he built a successful international business as an immigrant and that I can do it, too. It was incredible to hear, and he will always be there in my mind whenever something hard happens,” said Golding. 

Eberhart is also a practical resource for Golding. She’s applying to graduate school for business, for example, and Eberhart has agreed to write her a reference.

 That outcome is a testament to the resources contained in the deliberately open network that Obstfeld is creating. As a scholar of social networks himself, Obstfeld sees the potential for a distributed network that students could onboard into more quickly than a centralized program or course at their institution.

With that in mind, Obstfeld’s next move is to scale SCA to other colleges. In other words, rather than trying to wring more career mentoring out of his capacity-constrained campus, he’s set his sights on building an extra-institutional virtual structure that can be flexible in accommodating students’ needs and interests and doesn’t depend on the university itself to sustain or scale.

Can you scale chance encounters?

The work afoot at JHU and Cal State Fullerton illustrate two emerging approaches to brokering those networks that stretch beyond punishing staff ratios at most career services departments and address the emotional and logistical hurdles that first-gen and low-income students are likely to face. 

One has required universitywide leadership and investments to catalyze networks and expand experiences and alumni mentoring for all students. Another has involved a single professor activating a network of professionals beyond campus to connect with students who otherwise might not have access to those relationships and resources. Each is making strides taking the chance out of chance encounters.

Both Dey and Obstfeld are thoughtful about the large-scale potential of their respective approaches. 

In the case of SCA, a brief, network-building intervention delivered through an “open” system—one that operates outside the formal auspices of a campus-wide culture or without the endorsement of leadership—could be quick to scale. It doesn’t, Obstfeld believes, require an overhaul or a new strategic vision, or even changes to calcified course structures, credits, or schedules. On the other hand it requires laser focus on reaching and retaining students. “Our boundaries are permeable for growth, but permeable also for a student to leave,” Obstfeld explained. 

SCA’s “marketing puzzle,” he says, is to figure out how to recruit and retain students who aren’t required to attend SCA’s sessions or earning credits for doing so. To that end, SCA has commissioned students to create TikTok videos, send text reminders, and even offer cash incentives. “You need to come alongside and meet these students. That’s obligatory in an open system,” Obstfeld explained.

In contrast, a full-stack, higher dosage approach like JHU’s is a more foolproof way to ensure that all students are developing their future plans with plenty of relationships and resources at their disposal long before they graduate. The cost to doing so, and doing it well, however, is high: campus-wide buy-in, particularly from college presidents and trustees. 

Though it may take a lot of time to build that buy-in, Dey says it doesn’t have to take a lot of money. He refutes naysayers who deem Life Design a luxury that only campuses with deep coffers can pursue. Less-selective colleges and universities, he says, could pursue a similar model with modest staff resources, citing Bowling Green State University as one institution that’s “all in” on the concept.

A “vibrant view” of the future

As models to connect graduates to the workforce emerge, many colleges may find themselves somewhere in between the wholesale reform and supplementary approaches that Dey and Obstfeld are building. A campus-wide, full stack approach may produce more significant outcomes. But a smaller dosage intervention can likely reach more students, much more quickly.

Different as their respective models may be, both are at the leading edge of efforts to ensure that college cures—rather than perpetuates—inequality by more closely linking their students’ degrees to professional networks and opportunities. “In education circles, I see two stories getting attention: getting K-12 students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds into college and getting roadblocks out of the way so they can graduate,” Obstfeld said. “We’re writing a third story: let’s get them this vibrant view of their future and get them into the professional arena.” 

That vibrant view, along with the know-how and networks to secure jobs, is what traditional career services models have struggled to deliver. To bridge that gap, it’s noteworthy that each effort is focused on scaling connections and conversations, not just on expanding a checklist of “services.” They share a common thesis: without offering a broad network of support and opportunities, outdated career services models will consistently fall short on serving students furthest from opportunity.

The power of broad networks is a lesson worth learning—and teaching—in campus career services.

When Golding thinks of giving advice to her daughter, Annabell, one thing immediately comes to mind: “If I could only pass her one skill,” she said “that would be…relationship-building. Throughout all the hiccups in my life, my ability to connect with people has been a savior.”

Julia Freeland Fisher is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute and author of Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students’ Networks.

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