3 Ways to Rethink Career Services and Post-College Outcomes

by Lisa Cook, Academic Impressions

Tracking post-college outcomes continues to be an urgent issue as students, parents, and lawmakers press colleges to quantify the value of a college degree. Tracking results, however, is only half the battle, says Branden Grimmett, associate provost for the Office of Career and Professional Development at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.  Institutions that want to make a difference in their post-college outcomes need to transform their career services to better meet the changing needs of students and employers.

Grimmett led the transformation of career services at St. Olaf College at the highly acclaimed Piper Center for Vocation and Career. This June he accepted a position at Loyola Marymount University, where he will re-imagine their Office of Career and Professional Development. We talked to him to learn more about why institutions need to re-envision their career services office now, what revamped programming looks like, and what steps you can take to take to move the process forward.

Career Services Restructuring Needs to be Done Now

Grimmett lists four reasons to reinvent campus career services:

  • To increase awareness throughout the campus, among students and faculty alike
  • To make sure students are engaging with the programming and support career services provides, not only in their last semester but throughout all four years in college
  • To improve the reputation of the career center and the institution at large
  • To ensure all audiences are aware of each student's destination

Awareness, engagement, and reputation are just as important as knowing where students land when they graduate.

At St. Olaf, the economic turbulence between 2007 and 2009 sparked a greater awareness of what the college was doing to support students as they chose careers and planned for post-graduation. In response, St. Olaf embarked on the Mainstreet Initiative, a campus-wide conversation about the different ways that faculty, staff, administration, students, alumni, and employers help students achieve good outcomes. One result was St. Olaf's Recent Graduates Survey, which allows prospective parents and students — and anyone else — to search the database by class year, major, job title, type of business, and more. Other data is available regarding post-college financial independence and professional accomplishment.

"For those of us who work in the career services profession, it's the golden era of what we do," Grimmett adds. "Universities are looking to our offices to help reinforce the value of a college degree and a student’s return on investment."

Revamp Career Services Programming -- and Don't Forget Alumni

Another change Grimmett spearheaded at both St. Olaf and LMU has been a move toward more group programming and away from one-on-one appointments with career coaches.

"How can we educate students en masse, and how can we make students more comfortable with the career exploration process?" Grimmett asks.

The answer: involve alumni in every aspect as frequently as possible. Alumni can:

  • Educate students about the path they took to their current career
  • Serve as mentors to young talent
  • Connect with students at networking receptions to career pathways
  • Invite small student groups to visit their workplaces to explore pathways in more depth

"It's easy to engage alumni," Grimmett notes, adding "They've been wanting their alma mater to do more of this for a very long time." Plus, these activities validate the choices alumni make. "Once you can make that magic happen, alumni will be on your side forever," Grimmett explains.

Another strategic change was moving away from career service generalists to strategic campus and industry liaison relationships. This move was designed to allow each counselor to focus on a specific career area, such as law and public policy careers, and then meet with academic departments and employers from those areas on a regular basis. Under this model the counselor knows the pathways, can help students with internships, and is able to speak specifically to what employers have said students need to be doing now to be prepared for a future job in that industry.

Other programming changes include:

  • Taking students on the road to visit employers earlier in their college experience
  • Being involved with students throughout the admissions process so when students arrive on campus they know what career services are, how to interact with the office, and why it’s important. Grimmett now sees students coming to career services on the first day of class to see what they have to do to line up an internship next summer.
  • Hosting a career expo at the beginning of each year instead of only in the spring. “It’s so much more helpful to have that conversation as a first-year student than to have it in the spring semester as a senior student,” Grimmett explains. “Knowing what employers seek earlier in their college experience can help students plan their academic careers much more strategically.”

Steps to Reimagine Career Services on Your Campus

Grimmett recommends the following for any institution thinking about revamping career services:

  • Know your strategy. “Knowing what your mission’s going to be, knowing the vision for achieving that mission, and knowing the values of the institution are all critical to being able to understand how to navigate the changing landscape of higher ed,” Grimmett explains.
  • Realign staffing roles to support the vision.
  • Build trust with administration in order to increase resources, ideally for both staff and programming budgets simultaneously so there’s no disparity between the two. Challenges occur when staff are increased but the center has insufficient funds to increase programming, and when the opposite occurs.
  • Show initial outcomes that you’re able to achieve with current resources and pilot programs, then turn to what’s possible if additional resources could be secured.

"Many institutions are still letting their career centers define what outcomes they measure," Grimmett notes. Career services professionals can take advantage of this opportunity to educate their institutions about measuring more meaningful outcomes that go beyond simple employment outcomes.

The issue is particularly urgent for institutions without many resources and with low student awareness of career services. "Professionals in those circumstances should think critically about how they want their success to be defined, so that they can drive the conversation."