There have been many public critiques from academe, industry, and others of how colleges and universities fail to sufficiently help students prepare for their postcollege lives and careers. Some of these critiques are not only valid but unsurprising.
Significantly, the most recent edition of the Gallup-Purdue Index, an annual survey of college graduates, found that just 17 percent of students who graduated between 2010 and 2016 considered their institutions’ career centers “very helpful.” While some interpretations of the poll’s disparaging data have been offered, broader cultural conditions have gone unexamined.
Over the course of my 17-year career in higher education, I have witnessed the following three discernible conditions that help explain why approaches to preparing students for their postcollege lives have remained largely unchanged, despite showing evidence of being ineffective. Luckily, all three can be changed if institutions are willing to shift the status quo, redirect the conversation, and commit resources to more adequately serve students.
A false dichotomy. Most of us are familiar with the “life of the mind” versus “career preparation” dichotomy. Many administrators and faculty members believe that it’s impossible to pursue both a liberal education and prepare for one’s postcollege career (and, similarly, it’s impossible to study a pre-professional field and become liberally educated). Jeffrey Selingo addressed this issue in his book There Is Life After College. He wrote, “For American education to remain relevant to students, it must abandon the antiquated idea that schools and colleges broadly educate for life while employers train them for jobs. It’s not either-or anymore.”
Prospective students are becoming increasingly savvy about the resources for post-college planning, and they are beginning to see beyond the window dressing.
Indeed it isn’t. And it’s the responsibility of higher-education institutions to move themselves (and students) beyond this kind of counterproductive thinking so that we can better support and prepare our graduates as they transition to their postcollege lives.At Grinnell College, we have re-envisioned our program structure to prepare students to lead lives of meaning and purpose. In addition to assigning every new student (first-year and transfer) an adviser in our Center for Careers, Life, and Service, we are introducing seven distinct career-focused communities through which students will have access to specialized advising; tailored programming; robust experiential, service, and networking opportunities; and other activities that bridge college attendance and future goals.
Opt-in versus opt-out. The Gallup-Purdue study showed that 61 percent of students who graduated between 2010 and 2016 had visited a career center at least once. And that, depressingly, is an improvement from students who graduated five decades ago (35 percent) and those who graduated between 2005 and 2009 (55 percent). These data reflect the second prevailing condition across higher education: Planning for one’s postcollege life, including one’s career, is an opt-in exercise (and 39 percent of graduates from 2010 to 2016 did not opt in at all — not even once).
On most college campuses, the career center is like the bowl of vegetables sitting in the middle of the dinner table. Some students partake, but others are inclined to ignore it entirely. And, most concerning, some students — particularly those who are traditionally underrepresented in higher education or are first generation — are unaware that they can (and should) help themselves.
My colleagues and I can provide countless examples of conversations we’ve had with rising seniors and recent graduates who have said they wished they had started the postcollege planning process sooner. But many colleges seem unwilling to shift away from the prevailing “opt in” standard.
Window dressing. The most unfortunate condition is quite simple: Most career centers are not designed — in staffing, organizational structure, mission, and resources — to support the students on their campuses. According to the 2016-17 Career Services Benchmark Survey for Colleges and Universities, from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average number of students per professional staff member at college career centers in 2016 was 2,917. Most career centers employ a small cadre of generalist advisers who have neither the time to meet the full needs of their students nor the field-specific expertise that many students seek.
Career centers are frequently highlighted during campus tours with prospective students and families. Such references resonate with tuition-paying parents and students, helping to ameliorate their concerns about life after college. However, questions about student-to-career adviser ratios, appointment wait times, access to resources, and the percentages of students who actually use the career center quickly reveal the limitations of these campus resources. Prospective students and families are becoming increasingly savvy about the resources for postcollege planning, and they are beginning to see beyond the window dressing.
But change is possible. Realizing the importance of experiential learning, the University of Chicago launched the Jeff Metcalf Internship Program in 1997, and today it offers nearly 2,000 paid internships exclusively for its undergraduates during the summer and the academic year. Since its inception, more than 4,500 students and 1,300 employers have benefited from this program.
Other institutions like Stanford and Princeton Universities have transformed the ways in which they reach, connect with, and ultimately support their students as they prepare for their postcollege lives.
Colleges and universities can ultimately do something about dismal career-center data with institutional commitment. While many of the changes at Grinnell are still in their infancy, early indicators are promising: Student engagement in our center’s programs is at an all-time high (more than 96 percent for the class of 2016).
Additionally, in a survey of the class of 2016 (in which 83 percent of the class participated), 91 percent reported participation in at least one summer internship or research experience before graduating (the highest since 2012). More than nine out of 10 student respondents who applied to graduate school were accepted (84 percent to their first- or second-choice program), and of those that entered the work force, 93.5 percent accepted positions related to their career goals.
Again, change is possible, but only if institutional leaders and stakeholders come together to address the conditions that inhibit career development programs from reaching their full potential. It’s time to rethink, re-envision, and invest in these essential parts of our campuses with an eye on student success — the ultimate goal in higher education.
Mark Peltz is dean of careers, life, and service at Grinnell College.