Career Services: Death Is Not an Option

Kelli Smith Director of University Career Services at the Fleish

Kelli K. Smith, Director of University Career Services, Fleishman Center for Career and Professional Development, Binghamton University

Career services must live! Transform. Perhaps change its name.

If you are in the field of career services, you may have watched Wake Forest’s Andy Chan in a TED Talk, “Career Services Must Die,” recorded nearly two years ago. When Andy Chan and Wake Forest are discussed among colleagues, I hear responses ranging from, “They are doing some great things there,” to “Did you see the size of their staff?,” to “At least now people are actually paying attention to us,” to “Did you know that the university president committed millions of dollars to enhance their career programs before Chan arrived?”

Let me be clear. I have enormous respect for what is occurring at Wake Forest. I am excited about much of the work being done there and what the “Rethinking Success” movement has spurred within our field. I have been particularly inspired by their work in partnering with faculty and other campus entities, and by their commitment to undergraduate students’ professional development and success.

It is a fascinating time within our field. An #Elev8CS movement has begun on Twitter, and some colleagues call this “The Golden Age of Career Services.” It is not surprising to see director roles elevated in title and positional power at institutions as we are finally recognized for our direct link to recruitment, retention, and revenue. At the same time, at nearly all of our professional conferences, an expectation for transformation by campus leadership is clearly the underlying theme. This began to happen before the president’s College Scorecard focus on college outcomes  developed.

It may well be time for the typical name and nomenclature of “career services” to be buried. Yet, I worry the clearly attention-grabbing title of “Career Services Must Die” alone has prompted many in leadership positions at universities, particularly at large universities, to look critically at career services on their campuses without having the slightest idea of what career services does day-in and day-out.

This is the case even though research has indicated “getting a better job” is a top reason among prospective students for going to college.

Prior to Chan’s TED Talk and the College Scorecard initiative, many in our field believed top university leaders gave little, if any, attention to their career centers. It is critical that people understand a major reason why Wake Forest has been so successful in its transformation is that the university’s president made career development a priority, elevated the director role to a vice-president role and a direct report, assigned executive-level compensation to the position, and infused the career services team with millions of dollars to support their transformation effort.

In addition, according to the Rethinking Success website, Wake Forest raised more than $10 million to invest in their “college-to-career” efforts—with one result being the staff size quadrupled. Growing and elevating career services on a campus is much different than expecting departments to do more with less, or even more with the same.

Meanwhile, many of us at large public institutions feel we are being compared to Wake Forest, yet we are in a vastly different situation with regard to resources and positional power to have decision-making and a “seat at the table” granted by university leadership.

While Wake Forest had significant funds to assist in their transformation from the beginning, many public universities operate on very small budgets while serving relatively large populations of prospective students, current students, and alumni. And some have felt a reduction in resources over time, rather than an increase.

While (thankfully) the average career services operating budget has increased since 2012, still some campuses report decreases in in their budget than those reporting increases according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. At the same time, the national average students-per-staff ratio is 2,672 students per staff member; personalized attention for all students is simply not possible in such situations.

The significant focus finally placed our profession’s work within the last couple of years, prompted in large part by both Wake Forest and the College Scorecard, is promising. It has spurred innovation and change. I am convinced preparation of our students to enter the world of work will be bettered, and in the end, that is why those of us in my profession go to work every day.

We are ready for the expectations for change. My hope is that universities—public and private—put  resources behind their desire for transformation. It would not be fair to our students today or tomorrow.

I argue our field does not need to die, but rather needs attention and true support to become a university priority. While not yet ideal, I do feel fortunate for my own situation. In addition to the remarkable student profile of our public institution, a main reason I was willing to move my family across the country was because Binghamton recently built a new, state-of-the-art career center in the heart of campus, made possible by one of our alums. I also have a Vice President for Student Affairs who understands and values our work, supports the changes our team has made, and advocates for additional staffing resources. Stories of others in similar situations are more commonplace, and hopefully this trend will continue for all types of institutions across the country.

What’s happening on your campus?


18 thoughts on “Career Services: Death Is Not an Option

  1. Kelli, thanks for this great article. I suspect that it’s difficult news for some people to hear. I happen to agree with you that today’s college students and their families are indeed concerned about “getting a better job,” yet college professors continue to fight attempts to turn their schools into “vocational programs” rather than proactively address the valid concerns of students and their future employers. I also see college career center professional’s having a similar knee-jerk reaction against becoming “placement services” rather than focus on the skills their students will need to get the good jobs.

    I believe that resumes and aptitude tests are not enough, and that career centers will never get the funding they need to reach even 50% of their students for just these limited skills. As I presented in a webinar series for InternBridge earlier this year, I agree that colleges must rethink their approach to career preparation for their students (or as one recent article called it, “noncognitive academic skills”), and I believe that career center professionals are in a unique position to serve as catalysts to initiate and drive this change. I believe that this is the best path for them to be more effective in helping their students “get a better job” after graduation.

  2. Dear Alfred,
    Thank you and you make some excellent points. I am guessing your response might spark some conversation! I do believe that with our unique position of being one of the few – if only- departments on many of our campuses closely connected with the 3Rs of recruitment, revenue, and retention, along with the growth in focus on college career outcomes, we are uniquely positioned to serve as catalysts for change. And while I’m a firm believer that the increased need for us to focus on outcomes does not need to sacrifice our traditional educational values, there does need to at least be a balance in today’s world. Sometimes championing that takes time, but building a “culture of college to career” is something we can do. Part of my own strategy here at Binghamton is to identify and lift up our champions, hoping they can help with embedding our work into the fabric of campus. Even with increased institutional support, I’m guessing we will all agree our students’ college to career success takes a village.

  3. All excellent points! Career Services, in and of itself, should not die. But I do believe that what we are seeing is a great opportunity for transformation. In many cases, hopefully that means an increased emphasis on the importance of the skills that Career Services teaches by the upper administration and with that, an increase in funding and other support to reach more students and then providing the centers with the time it will take to actually make that transformation. Like you indicated, though, much of that depends on who is in charge at any given time. Unfortunately some “managing up” might be needed in order to educate upper administration and faculty about all the opportunities that Career Services has to make a positive impact on the professional development of students. Making students (future alums) successful take a village, just like you said.

  4. Thanks for the excellent points, Katie, and great to hear from you! I completely agree this is truly an unprecedented opportunity for our field to transform, and also with the “managing up” point. While several years old and for what it is worth, one of the best books I’ve read that touches on that latter item is John Kotter’s Power & Influence. There is a chapter on “managing the boss” that I have personally found helpful in my own professional development. Somewhat related, I’d add that people in our field also need to be skilled at storytelling – whether qualitative stories or stories with data. Using stories and data has helped me enormously in my new role at Binghamton. Lastly, while I completely agree those are all needed skills for career professionals, it is also key when upper administrative leadership already has some value for career services. Your CBA Dean at UNL is a great example; when you think of how your office has gone from being non-existent to a staff of 6 (+GAs) in less than 4 years, that is pretty incredible. Some of that additional support has undoubtedly come from your team’s hard work, strategy, and success, but Dean Plowman also had that value before the office was created. And thankfully so.

    Thanks for the note, Katie!

  5. Hello All: Excellent Kelli!! I am one of those that have championed what WF is doing. But I fully understand they were able to do what they are doing because of a strong commitment to CS from the administration, faculty, alumni, parents, employers, as well as strong financial support.

    This is the key, the higher administration and faculty must buy-into what we are trying to do. That is incorporating a mandatory career exploration, preparation and development component for all four years. In addition, mandatory internships for all majors. I know this may be difficult for the faculty because they may worry that we are trying to turn the Ivory Tower into an intellectual trade school. But if they are backing this all the way, it should be easy to implement. But it all must start with the suits. They have to say, YES this is what we are going to do, and not send it to a committee for review…for a year.

    All of our offices could probably do much of what WF is doing if we too had these types of commitments. Well, either way, we still have to keep the machine running, probably with a little less gas than some others. So the idea is to work smarter at ways to get our mission across to all those involved that what we are doing is indeed an integral part of the the students’ university experience and will help with student admission, retention, and career success. The only way to get our mission across is to become the “squeaky wheel” on campus and push for this support from the suits.

    • Well said, Martin (as always). I’m not convinced however that the measures that you cite — as powerful and needed as they might be — will make enough difference. I am in total agreement about requiring internships for all, and that nothing will happen without a campus-wide commitment. But it can’t all be done by Career Services alone.

      I believe that the solution is to require a commitment to career skills throughout a student’s life on campus. Just as some schools have an Honor Code that governs all activities, I believe we need a campus-wide commitment to Career Skills, and hold everyone accountable for them, including faculty and administration. I recommend picking just a few, such as verbal and written communication skills, group skills (leadership and participation), and reliability (being punctual and prepared, and meeting deadlines). Don’t accept “it’s not my job” or “they should have learned this already” as reasons not to hold students accountable for these skills.

      The difficult part is convincing the various groups that this is a good idea, let alone essential. Parents and students are rightly concerned about the difficulty that recent grads have in the workplace. The federal government would have cut off access to fed-backed student loans for 1,400 colleges this year if the new rules were in effect. Your graduates’ ability to repay their federal loans can have a huge impact on your school’s future funding. That should help focus the attention of these other groups.

  6. Hello All: Well said, Alfred (as always, my friend) Everyone on campus has to see this (preparing students for their chosen career) “as their job”. Your last point about the feds cutting-off funds is a major point. If this would continue, and the suits and the faculty start to wonder where all the fed money went to, perhaps then they will endorse our programs…before it is too late.

  7. Just read this post as I am going into a meeting on how we can “re-invent” career services. The standard service delivery methods just don’t work. As a former member of corporate America and a parent of twins who are about to enter college, I know career services is paramount to our (and their) success. I agree completely that senior level support and resources are the biggest critical success factors in this venture. I am going to forward this blog to my boss and the higher ups. Thank you all for sharing.

  8. Lets be honest. Students SAY they go to college to improve their careers, but they don’t mean it. They resist career planning, even resent it when it is required. They don’t show up to practice then blame us when they can’t perform come game day.

    The career center quality is not the problem. But if our universities force us to keep trying to make our little career outlet stores better, market more, give more pizza at events, measure outcomes more, then nothing will change.

    Maybe it would indeed be better to eliminate the career center in it’s current form so that the university is forced to either make career planning a regular part of the university experience or find a better way to deliver it so that students get prepared. But that is unlikely to happen given the power of faculty culture, tenure, and no real incentive to change the delivery paradigm. Maybe The National Scorecard will force some change, but few are talking about an integrated approach with any seriousness. It’s mostly more of the same ol’ same ol’.

    • Jerry, I’d agree with much of what you say, right up until the end. If university access to federally-guaranteed loans gets tied to their graduates’ ability to repay their loans, then the administration will have a strong incentive to initiate change. And when the faculty hears that a major source of revenue that pays their salary is in jeopardy, I think that they will listen.

      As I understand it, however, it is not a matter of “if” but “when” at this point. Career Services professionals are in a unique position to lead this discussion and point to broader approaches to address the problems. If they simply seek to expand their sphere of influence and increase funding for their programs, I think that they will fail. If they take a broader view to attack the issues on a campus-wide basis, I believe that they will have more success.

  9. Alfred,
    I agree that The Scorecard might change the game, but most of the discussions I read talk about bigger and better career retail outlets on campus. I don’t believe we can simply add money to our “shops” and expect students to suddenly start visiting.

    Fear of loss is one of the most powerful human motivators, and if reaches faculty, then there is hope for change. But I worry that this will become another “no child left behind” where test scores were supposed to make things better, but what I read and hear from teachers is that things might actually be worse.

    “Transformation” means moving from caterpillar to butterfly. Transformation in a university student’s career planning needs to look different than our current caterpillar no matter how colorful.

    • Well said, Jerry. I completely agree that we must do more than try harder to do more of what’s not working.

      “Efficiency is doing things well. Effectiveness is doing the right things.” Peter Drucker.

  10. What a great discussion and comments from several people – thank you. Jerry, after being invited to a faculty senate meeting at my current institution today, coupled with other experiences over the years, I can certainly understand your comments. I also know from some NACE presentations that you have done some really solid work partnering with academics and created some innovative programs.

    I do agree buy-in from the academic side is very important, and I also know from working at 6 different campuses in 20+ years that every campus is very different – the locus of faculty control on the campus direction, whether academic leadership is willing to take a public stand and say that our career-related work – and collaboration among career offices across campus – is important, the average level of engagement of students, the overall campus culture and dedication to its students, etc.. We have to work with (and capitalize upon) what we have, I suppose. It is really hard to know what will happen in the future. But I do at least have hope when, for example, so many of our programs are standing room only, outside requests for our programs nearly tripled, we are making major steps toward gaining more partners across campus, there are some exciting innovations happening all across the country, and I even see academic leadership in arts and sciences at institutions like Wisconsin and Minnesota leading the charge for support and providing much-needed resources. Let’s hope the tide of transformation – and support for resources – continues.

    • Hi Kelli. You are an irrepressible optimist which is inspiring!

      I am an inconsistent optimist (often half full, sometimes half empty). Indeed, my boss and I are presenting a NACE conference program entitled “Every graduating senior has a career plan” which relies on our ability to motivate faculty to meet the board of trustees mandate. I never imagined how much resistance we would get, especially from professors who I previously considered allies. But I’m a naive person.

      Logic does not prevail. Statistics and data do not motivate. Dissonance must be leveraged. It’s mostly political. I re-visit the writings of Democrat and Republican strategists, as well as read about motivation theory to search for ways I can persuade and influence faculty. I’ve been at it for 35 years, you would think I would have learned some tricks by now!

      Therein lies my problem. I’m a counselor and helper – a hapless ENFP.. I didn’t sign up to be a politician, but here I am. If our program succeeds it will improve thousands of lives for years to come, so I’m doing my best. It’s tantalizing to think of leaving a legacy. It’s also seductive.

      Your programs are better than ours if you get standing room only. We have 1,900 students. We count about 3,500 student “touch points” (counseling, workshops, events, etc.) annually, yet find that about half our graduates are poorly prepared. I consider that an institutional failure rate (half-empty). I am skeptical that tweaking our traditional services will significantly improve the 50% “failure rate” which is why I think transformation is required. And that’s why I’m tilting at windmills (faculty). We have achieved some good success but have miles to go and promises to keep.


  11. I have enjoyed this exchange immensely. Great article, Kelli, and great followup discussion. I was particularly struck by Alfred’s commentary about faculty resistance to “vocationalism.” John Dewey was a champion of the “both /and” concept, and I think it is perfect for our story — career planning and academic planning are intertwined; a college education can educate citizens AND prepare students for work. Like Kelli, I’m an optimist. The mood is certainly changing on my campus and I know from so many colleagues in the field, it’s changing elsewhere. Now we have to marshall the resources to make the transformation possible.

  12. Hello All: Great comments by everyone. For those of you getting the support you need from the top, I congratulate you. However, until the administration says ‘yes, career development planning and preparation are a main focus of our mission’, it will be up to us (CS) to continue to try to facilitate change. It is also a matter of how bad does the administration want to take on the faculty. I am a realist, well aware that the wheels of the Ivory Tower turn very slowly and the mindset of “business as usual” can be pervasive all over campus. That is why WE have to try to make things happen and tell the administration and the faculty that without their fullest support, we will only be able to do so much. We should not be given a thimble full of paint, a 0 gauge brush and be expected to paint the Empire State…and do an excellent job.

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