NACE Journal, April 2016
This is a perfect moment to marry two promising and potent forces in higher education—college to career readiness and systematic focus on shared institutional outcomes. Career services done right can be a key player.
A quick story will set the stage: NACE had just shared the results of its initial First-Destination Survey with participating schools. I was told of one president, none too thrilled (read: disappointed) with the school’s relative job placement results, who called the career development director to express concerns. I wondered aloud if that president’s next call was to the English department chair to ask how the college could improve students’ written and oral communication capacities to translate into more effective cover letters and interviews. If math and computer science knowledge generated satisfying employment opportunities, did the president call those departments to see how the school could help them hold on to declared majors who drifted away, or bolster computer or statistics competence across the student body?
I didn’t expect the wave of applause that simple story generated at the NACE 2015 annual conference in Anaheim, but I should have. It’s a vivid expression of the frustration that career development professionals experience when they feel that they alone are expected to “get our students jobs.” It spoke eloquently to the hunger of career professionals for deep collaboration among the many people and functions within the institution who need to commit their expertise, clout, visibility, tools, energy, and resources to the common purpose of making the marriage of learning and career development succeed.
That hunger, these changes, are part of an urgent national desire for effective and visible attention to career readiness, and can be seen across a broad array of platforms—from employer surveys to presidential debates, from the federal gainful employment rule to colleges’ own recruiting messaging.
Back in 2004, I wrote that “Lately academia seems to be consciously embracing the importance of integrating all aspects of the undergraduate educational experience, including academic, co-curricular, residential, volunteer, spiritual, and athletic life. But even with this comprehensive vision, the dimension of work, past, present and future, is typically left out of the integrative model.”
Fortunately, that is finally—if inconsistently—changing.
Happily there is much to cheer in the realm of colleges’ career readiness and intentional, effective achievement of critical competencies for success in career and life. NACE and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) among others have done fine work in defining sets of competencies that are common to academic and employer expectations. Creative campuses, systems, and collaborations with employers are generating exciting models that explicitly braid those competencies together across academic, advising, co-curricular, and work experiences. Hampden-Sydney College, for example, has emphasized vocational reflection and coordination across the whole campus around a few key questions and well-articulated career pathways. And, in another example, SUNY Works is a serious system-wide initiative that draws campus faculty and employers together to jointly develop curricula that integrate classroom instruction and on-the-job business and service experience, and also provides a statewide internship data base for both to use. Many institutions, from Northeastern and Willamette to Hobart & William Smith Colleges and St. John’s University, are growing their experiential learning models that integrate internships, research, and academic settings. LaGuardia Community College is piloting digital badges based directly on career competencies.
It’s good to see schools creating ways to draw on the learning potential of students’ less glamorous work pursuits, too. A subtle point made by the National Campus Leadership Council (NCLC) is that “unfortunately, many students cannot afford to take time to volunteer and involve themselves with unpaid internships because they are spending so much time working to pay tuition.” NCLC worried that those students would be unable to develop work-related competencies (and make useful connections) that could position them well for careers. Part of the answer lies in structuring academic and financial aid policies to assist students to get high impact opportunities like quality internships and research positions. There are also interesting approaches in which schools are preparing faculty and students to draw the full range of work experiences into the classroom to support competence development. What can you learn from a retail food service or library job about system design and/or learning and communication differences? What can these teach you about economics, human psychology, and motivation and leadership?
Each of these approaches involves collaborations across historic institutional lines to accelerate planning and measurements of success. These are important building blocks for the kind of institution-wide outcomes measurement that campuses are embracing—or being driven to—as a result of national and foundation completion goals, donor expectations, state metrics and higher education performance-based budgeting, the burgeoning industry of ratings and rankings, and the new federal College Scorecard.
As one of the architects of the Scorecard, I’m optimistic about its potential to galvanize strategic investment in student-serving results. The Scorecard and other evolving resources are invitations for institutions to orient collective planning, resource allocation, effort, and assessment around the most fundamental questions. Are we providing access to low-income and otherwise challenged students? Do we bring them to completion at a manageable cost, so they can move into the world of work, participate in the society, and handle their debt? Where is our institution especially strong, and where is there room for improvement relative to others taking on similar challenges?
I applaud institutions that are doing the hard work of collaborating to allocate their attention and resources strategically and sharing responsibility for results. Peter Stokes said it well: “Apart from money and people, the biggest challenge may be cultural, getting diverse stakeholders focused on the same objectives that everyone can rally around and find value in.”
These are a few of the myriad areas that deserve institutional attention: We need to complement existing metrics with effective ways to understand and compare learning outcomes and development of competencies. This is appropriately the project of postsecondary education, from campuses to accreditors to national associations, who can assure that measures are appropriate, subtle, and constructive. At the same time, we need to be sure that “career readiness” is also understood to mean preparation for community service, democratic engagement, and leadership. This is an opportunity to reinforce a broad understanding of the value of postsecondary education and the wide applicability of the critical competencies.
How will responsibility for rich learning and skills development, career readiness, and evaluation be shared by different actors in the institution? As we move further toward outcomes and competency-based measures of success rather than credit hour/seat time systems, the allocation of time and attention will still be one of the most critical decisions in any institution. How should precious student contact hours in class be spent? What bridges among faculty, advisers, career development professionals, and employers will support design of curricula to incorporate workplace experiences? How will these professionals work together to collect and use information to track whether the shared goals are being achieved, and whether it's time for celebration, renewed effort or revamping? How will the roles of these critical players change, merge, and grow, and how will institutions prepare and reward them for their contributions?
Giving students much better roadmaps to learning expectations and outcomes, enlisting them in the design and achievement of their learning, adds coherence and focus to a career-readiness-focused enterprise. The American Institute of CPAs series “ThisWaytoCPA. Com” offers a fresh approach. Schools like Georgia State, Millikin, and Seton Hall are making those scaffolds and connections more explicit, right from orientation and course selection through reflection on every internship, co-curricular engagement, and career research task. A natural complement would be to create an “alliance of advisers” in all the counseling and advising functions across campus, structural or informal.
Employers have parts to play as well. Of course there is an extensive literature and practice around campus-employer partnerships and course and program design. What would work on your campus to draw employers and supervisors into a career competencies-based discussion and structure for jobs and internships? Dr. Susan Phillips, former provost of the University at Albany, suggested engaging faculty by inviting employers to identify what they like and value about the preparation and performance of an institution's graduates. Today employers come to campus; I’d like to see faculty engage on site with employers more, too. Some teachers now do externships and residencies themselves to understand today’s chemistry lab or publishing firm. Imagine what faculty who are responsible for incorporating career competencies within course design could learn from sitting in on HR discussions of position requirements, career ladders, performance standards, and employee effectiveness and training.
How can career services contribute maximum leadership and support? As colleges are measured by students and others on how well they succeed in preparing people for solid careers, career services can be a strong leader and ally in integrated program design and evaluation. That’s only realistic if the team has sufficient capacity and respect within the institution to be a real partner with faculty and with the recruiting and retention, advising, assessment, and planning functions.
To get the most from career services deserves a serious functional review. Are career services leaders included in key conversations about curriculum, teaching and learning, and advising? That in turn invites a look at the capacities, experience, and scale of the team: Is it staffed and supported at a level consistent with the growing emphasis and complexity of the role? Across the higher education spectrum, it is surprising that career development office support appears stagnant (or slowing, once inflation is factored in) even as opportunities and demands expand. What reporting and collaborative relationships will best allow it to contribute seriously to institutional goals? In addition to traditional student affairs ties, new options include direct reporting to the president, academic affairs, and enrollment management.
Many institutions and individuals are not at this level yet. On the most basic level, simply “getting out more” and knowing more about each other’s work, skills, and challenges would help. Last year I met with a set of faculty from a dozen universities who wanted to connect with businesses to enrich their course content and to make their research agendas more relevant. They were genuinely surprised when I reminded them said they didn’t have to invent that particular wheel, that there were offices on their campus whose function included knowing about the business community and its needs and goals—the career services office and the development office. But I see positive signs of collaboration, too, such as an April New England Board of Higher Education and WACE conference on experiential education for chief academic officers.
Career readiness and collective institutional responsibility for campus outcomes will generate maximum lift when they are linked together. The momentum of a competencies-based approach linked to real world applications, plus wise measures designed and owned by the entire institution, are a good recipe for collective engagement, effort, and results. Career services have much to offer as the whole campus aligns to assure that students graduate with experiences and credentials that reflect genuine capacities that will serve them well in securing work with solid prospects and lives of meaning and agency.
Association of American Colleges & Universities. “LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes.” Retrieved February 15, 2016, from https://www.aacu.org/leap/essential-learning-outcomes.
“Higher Education and Employability” (Panel Presentation). Rockefeller Institute of Government, November 2015. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fR45uact-zk.
National Association of Colleges and Employers. “Career Readiness Defined,” October 2015. www.naceweb.org/knowledge/career-readiness-competencies.aspx.
Stokes, Peter J. Higher Education and Employability: New Models for Integrating Study and Work. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2015.
Stokes, Peter J. “Perspectives: How to Build a Successful Student Employability Strategy.” Huron Consulting, n.d. Retrieved February 15, 2016, from https://www.huronconsultinggroup.com/Insights/Perspective/Education/How-to-Build-a-Successful-Student-Employability-Strategy
Studley, Jamienne.“Vocation is Not A Dirty Word.” Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, March 2004. Retrieved from http://archive.carnegiefoundation.org/perspectives/vocation-not-dirty-word.