Over the past year, I have had many conversations and debates regarding the value of a liberal arts education. Many have turned to the strategies higher education institutions can employ to maximize their value proposition through enhanced personal and career development for their students. It seems that my experience, while probably occurring at a higher frequency than others’, is not unique. With discussions taking place around dinner tables, in high schools, in college dorms, in the national media and among politicians, this topic is very clearly at the center of higher education’s future.
Many regard post-graduate employment as the primary measure of value provided by higher education institutions. While this is an oversimplification of the purpose of college, it is nonetheless an essential metric that prospective students and their families want to know. They fear that despite the major investment required for a college education, the experience will still result in underemployment or even unemployment. Now there are many existing tools, offered through private companies as well as via the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, to help families make more educated decisions about choice of college based on factors such as cost, graduation rate, loan default rate, median borrowing and employment. Yet despite the challenging trends indicated by the data, many schools seem to be evolving slowly.
While transformational changes have occurred in the world of work, many college career offices look and function the same way they did twenty years ago. When we think about how dramatically the world of work has changed, it is remarkable that the methods utilized to prepare students to enter it have remained static. Yet instead of investing, schools slashed career office budgets by an average of 16 percent this past year while prospective students and families pleaded for increased support to help find gainful employment. Unless we can demonstrate to prospective students and their families that the four years spent at college will result in better employment prospects, there will continue to be those who disparage a college education as a waste of money.
It was at the Rethinking Success conference hosted by Wake Forest a year ago that national thought leaders from a variety of disciplines, employers, 74 premier higher education institutions and others discussed these very themes. Many ideas were examined, but everyone agreed on one point: schools must reexamine their existing models and construct new methods to help students successfully enter the world of work. In order to seriously affect systemic change, there must be institutional prioritization, including senior administration and faculty commitment, as well as partnerships between the career office and influential groups around campus, particularly academic, advancement, communications, information systems and alumni relations offices. Engaging and educating faculty and parents in the process is essential as they are the greatest influencers of student mindsets and decisions after peers. In this manner, a “college-to-career” community must be cultivated to equip students to successfully navigate the path from college to the workforce.
Our conference was a catalyst for transformational change in higher education. It provided a stimulus for higher education leaders to seriously consider making the career development process a mission critical priority. However, many institutions are struggling to make this commitment. To this end, we have developed a “Roadmap for Transforming the College-To-Career Experience” through observation of similar themes at innovative schools. We hope it inspires you to take action on your campus to implement innovative solutions to the challenges faced in today’s demanding and competitive global world.
 National Association of Colleges and Employers 2011-2012 Career Services Benchmark Survey
This letter is an excerpt from “A Roadmap for Transforming the College-to-Career Experience,” a document based on the Rethinking Success conference. For a complete, downloadable version of the document, click here.