Why Can’t the Wake Forest Career Model Work For Us All?

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.


  1. Tricia Krzywicki says:

    What you are saying is what is hard for leadership to address…..graduate outcomes are increasingly becoming the selling point for students and parents when choosing the schools that they will apply to.

    President’s and senior leadership are readily tackling the rising cost of education and the challenges of student debt through financial measures: focusing on student aid; freezing tuition increases; and guaranteeing that the price you pay as a freshman will remain the same for four years, as a means to attract more students.

    Addressing careers and the obligation of colleges/universities to change their paradigm toward preparing graduates for life after college often conflicts with the academia model of success. Dancing around the issue of graduates securing jobs and jobs where they aren’t considered underemployed will be a competing factor for like institutions.
    Parents and students want to see the numbers, hear the success stories of early career graduates and be assured that something “different” will be happening at that particular school to ensure that the economic investment isn’t something in the distant future.
    Salaries and job satisfaction are becoming the “norm” in not only choosing a career but the assurance institutions will need to provide to distinguish themselves.

  2. Jerry Houser says:

    Hi Sheila.
    No surprise here, I love this article. Andy Chan and Wake Forest are lucky to have Nathan Hatch at the helm. But from what I have read, they still need to take the final step, which is to REQUIRE career preparation. I’m not saying career centers don’t need more support, I’m saying that no matter how much money they get, they alone can’t get all students career ready for graduation…unless its required.

    You make that point in your first item: “1) Change the culture.” Amen to that! Everyone needs to support career preparation, faculty included. “Support” is necessary but not sufficient unless career preparation is required for all students.

    Point “2) reach out to students.” We do that every hour, every day. We hold marketing meetings, focus groups, do surveys, use social media, Lucy booths, provide drop-in buy pizza and everything in between. Yes, paper airplanes at orientation are clever, but most students simply will not do planning unless career preparation is required no matter how friendly we are.

    Point “3) Be transparent.” I agree, however, statistics are slippery. College graduates have always reached a ~93-95% employment rate…eventually. Department of Labor has documented that for years. Wake Forest, or Willamette University where I work, simply cannot statistically demonstrate that their graduates’ employment rate is CAUSED by a great career center. Yes, there may be a correlation. Maybe. But it’s not a causal relationship as statisticians say.

    BUT – you can use the statistics to drive home the need for culture change. At a ~50% un or under employment rate, even faculty listen when you tell them that half their seniors are not going to do well after walking across the graduation stage. Let the numbers get their attention, then use them to make your point.

    You hit the nail on the head mentioning technology. Technology now makes us able to help every student increase their preparation for careers without career center staff making live class presentations or faculty taking time to present careers. So much can be done online with the help of ePortfolios, vendors such as Optimal Resume and Symplicity, Google drive, LinkedIn, Focus 2, and robust web pages. AND we must increase the 1 on 1 touch points of alumni, career counselors, faculty advisors, supervisors, coaches, etc. High tech +high touch.

    Willamette University is after culture change, and will eventually arrive at the place where every student is required to do career planning. It’s in our strategic plan. I believe every college can move in that direction – eventually, and career centers can play a vital catalytic role with a little strategy.



  3. Shani says:

    Highly energetic article, I loved that a lot. Will there be a
    part 2?

  4. Hey! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would
    be ok. I’m definitely enjoying your blog and look forward to new updates.

Speak Your Mind