Sheila Curran is a leader in the field of student career services. She held positions at Brown University and Duke University, and co-authored “Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career (Ten Speed Press). I asked Sheila, a member of the Higher Education Management Group, about the current state of career services in higher education.
Q: Do you find that most colleges pay a great deal of attention to student career services? Is it an item on the President’s desk?
College Presidents have had a great deal to contend with over the past year. It’s not surprising that their attention has been focused on the immediate problems associated with falling endowments, increased demand for financial aid, and decreased revenue from every source from state governments to alumni donors. So far, parents and graduates have been slow to take their complaints about their children’s unemployment directly to the President. They’re probably hoping that the situation is temporary, particularly if their adult children have moved back in with them. But I’m convinced that after massive numbers of students have been unemployed for the better part of a year, the outcry will be heard. It would be good idea for presidents to get prepared now, and develop strategies to help not just new grads, but unemployed alumni. After all, unemployed alumni don’t tend to give money to their alma mater.
Many presidents who do recognize the looming problems created by graduate unemployment delegate responsibility for action to their careers offices. I think this is misguided: Careers offices should, of course, be held accountable for services that enhance student success in the job search, but colleges and universities also need an institution-wide approach to preparing students for the real world. Preparing for careers isn’t just something you do second semester senior year. We need to be thinking much more broadly about the nature of education—in and out of the classroom—and capitalizing on the skills that are naturally being acquired.
Q: Tuition at US colleges has risen faster than inflation during the past two decades. Has this translated into greater pressure from students, parents and other stakeholders for high job placement rates among graduates?
It’s interesting that or the most part, higher education has not been held accountable for the career success of its recent and experienced grads. But I think that’s going to change. You can’t continually increase the cost of higher education unless those who foot the bill see the value of that education. There is plenty of survey data telling us that prospective students expect their chosen institution to prepare them for a good career. And when applicants are unsure that a particular education will enable them to achieve their career goals, they’ll vote with their feet. Top echelon schools with brand name recognition will probably be the last to change. For others, though, it will be essential to improve the connection from college to career if the college is to not only survive, but thrive.
Proprietary schools have already gotten the message from their investors that career outcomes are a critical point of measurement. Most colleges and universities don’t have investor pressure, but they’ll still have to pay more attention to what happens to their graduates if they’re going to satisfy parents and prospective students. I’m a huge proponent of a liberal education, and I know how much can be gained through these courses, but I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job translating the value of a liberal arts education into words that resonate with potential employers. And we haven’t articulated the need to supplement classroom education with internships that are related to a student’s career aspirations.
Q: Are today’s career counselors adequately prepared to help students prepare for the job market?
The career counselor’s job is not an easy one. If a counselor is working in a college or university, it’s not enough to be able to help a student or alum figure out their interests, values and skills, and what potential career fields they might explore. In addition to being counselors in the traditional sense, they’re expected to be coaches, educators, career strategists and sometimes even subject matter experts. A good counselor also understands the education students receive, and builds networks of alumni, parents and institutional “friends” who can supplement they career advice they give to students. It’s not surprising that few counselors can do all these things—as well as understand the changing economic landscape—equally well for all people. I think a fundamental change needs to take place in the way career centers are organized, and in the training that is given to career services professionals. Good career services can make a huge difference to a student’s ultimate success after graduation.