Mention the word “career” in the college presidential suite or the trustee boardroom, and all attention focuses on Wake Forest, a nationally-ranked university in North Carolina.
Rarely have colleges and universities been as effective as Wake Forest in garnering the media spotlight for innovation in work whose results can be seen only after students graduate. But for Wake, the ability to ensure the success of its graduates appears to be as important as the quality of education it provides in the classroom.
Wake Forest has changed the discourse about careers in a very strategic way. Its president, Nathan Hatch, has invested heavily in efforts to better connect education to life after graduation. He has hired a top-rate leader for this effort, Andy Chan. He has led a national conversation about re-thinking careers, in which I was privileged to moderate a session. And, he has tapped into parental concerns about the value of a college degree by asking them for even more money—this time, to support career development efforts and opportunities for their sons and daughters.
So why haven’t colleges across the country followed suit?
There are, in fact, many colleges and universities doing innovative work in careers, and salaries for career leaders in recent searches reflect the increased importance of these positions. But these schools are not the norm. Far from emulating the Wake Forest model, many institutions have gone backwards. Any career services office that didn’t see a budget cut in at least one of the last five years can consider itself lucky; the median nationwide salary of a career director in FY13 was under $70,000.
Money is often the key reason why colleges and universities don’t make the bold changes introduced at Wake Forest. But I believe the reasons are philosophical as well:
• Many institutions dislike the current push to prove the economic value of the education they provide, and believe this more vocational emphasis will diminish their academic standards.
• Colleges don’t want to reduce the budget of other departments so that more money can be invested in career services.
• Advancement offices are concerned that money raised for careers will reduce donations to other institutional priorities, even when it can be proven that dollars given to careers expand rather than reduce the development pie.
• A significant elevation in career director salaries may be perceived to cause internal equity problems if peers are in low-paid areas like Student Affairs.
Curiously, few people have made the case that securing a successful future for college graduates is just as important as admitting the right number of appropriately qualified students. One obvious reason is that most universities have Career Centers with very low visibility and don’t hold their career directors accountable for results. When graduate outcomes are considered as important on the undergraduate level as they are in professional schools, institutions may have less of a problem making the leader of the careers initiative a senior-level position, as it is at Wake Forest.
In the meantime, there are plenty of ways for colleges and universities to learn from the Wake Forest example without spending a great deal of money:
1) Change the culture. Wake Forest believes that helping students prepare for their futures requires a supportive ecosystem. That ecosystem includes faculty, alumni, parents, advisors and the students themselves. For the model to work, you need technology, and at least one person to orchestrate the “career community”, but apart from that, it’s a question of setting expectations. In most schools, it will take a presidential mandate to ensure that the career success of a college’s students is everyone’s business.
2) Reach students early and don’t make careers intimidating. Wake Forest uses a paper airplane exercise to get students’ attention at orientation, while also gathering important information on students’ career aspirations. Career activities don’t have to be fun, but such methods do address the biggest complaint of most career services offices: students don’t come in to use their services. Students will, of course, take advantage of a service if they perceive it to be valuable, convenient and a good use of their time. The best way to engage students is for them to hear accolades about an individual, service or program from fellow students.
3) Be transparent. Wake Forest’s website lays out all the statistics about what happens to its graduates—but it tells individual stories too. If you want to know where philosophy graduates found their jobs, it’s only a few clicks away. And, you can easily discover what you should be doing to prepare for your career in each of your years in college.
No college or university can implement major new career initiatives simply by following the Wake Forest model, because all institutions have their own unique cultures. But neither can they sit on the sidelines and keep doing business as usual. Families are increasingly making decisions about where their sons and daughters will matriculate based on both educational quality and career outcomes. It is time to recognize that colleges and universities can provide both.