Reimagining the Impact of Alumni Career Services

Alumni need help with their careers–particularly if they had the misfortune to graduate in 2020 during a pandemic. At the same time, their older peers want to give back to their alma mater in meaningful ways. If ever there were a perfect time for Alumni Career Services, it is now. Yet few schools have been able to open their college’s check book to start or support career initiatives aimed at alumni, despite the oft-quoted fact that meaningful alumni engagement leads to greater philanthropy. Simply put, the value proposition remains unproven, and there are too many other pressing priorities.


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The Career Community as a College Strategic Asset

Why do students go to college? Most academics would be horrified to discover that the top reason is not to get a great education and become an educated citizen of the world. Today’s students still want high quality academics, but they take the educational benefits of college for granted. What students now expect from college is to get a leg up in life.


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Threats to the Higher Ed Business Model

What are the biggest threats to Higher Education? Cost? Student debt? Changing demographics and student choice? MOOCs? Inadequate career preparation? Depending on the college, it could be any combination of these factors. In the article Higher Ed Business Models Are Earning Failing Grades, first published in the Journal of Corporate Renewal, we discuss how to accomplish essential change in an academic environment.


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The Big Disconnect Between College and Career

Students and parents want a college education to lead to a better job. Recent surveys from Inside Higher Ed and Gallup suggest that almost all college presidents and senior academic officers agree with them.

Sadly, however, there is a big disconnect between the perception of higher education and the perception of employers when it comes to the employability of new college grads. Colleges and universities think they’re already doing a good job of preparing students for the job search. Fewer than a third of employers concur.

And, according to a 2012 survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace, only 16% of employers considered applicants to be “very prepared” with the knowledge and skills they would need for the job.

How could colleges and universities think they are preparing students well, while employers pan their efforts? What could be the cause for this disconnect?

Why is there a disconnect between college and career?

  • First, many academic leaders—particularly in institutions with a broad focus on the liberal arts—fear that paying more attention to the career needs of students will be the first step on a slippery slope to “vocationalism” and a less academic approach to education.
  • Second, most of those who are currently in senior academic leadership positions graduated at a time when the rules governing how to find a job were much clearer—and stresses of loan repayment less onerous. They may not know what it takes to be successful in the modern job search or for what they can hold a Career Services office accountable.
  • Third, few colleges and universities are aware of new integrated models of career preparation, which use a “Career Community” concept to broaden opportunities and advising. These models encourage students to reflect and build on their learning in and outside the classroom from the first year on. They also ensure the involvement of alumni, parents and employers, helping students connect the dots between their talents, interests and opportunities.

Engaging Career Centers in institutional plans for career preparation

Possibly the biggest reason for the disconnect between career preparation rhetoric and reality was revealed in a recent session on career preparation at the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ annual conference. Not once during the presentation was there any mention of university career services offices.

In fact, career center leaders and senior administrators rarely, if ever, come together to strategize about how an institution can create a comprehensive plan to improve career preparation and graduate career outcomes. Rare is the institution like Augustana College (Rock Island, IL), that views the enhancement of career and graduate school success as a key institutional priority, and engaged all interested Augustana faculty and staff in its planning process.

At many colleges and universities, the Career Center is perceived as nothing more than the place where students go to get their resumes and cover letters critiqued. While many career services offices are excellent, it is true that others have changed little in the past few decades, employing a more operational than strategic approach to their work.

But things are changing in the careers world: A new breed of career director is emerging who understands both the work world and the academic world, and is committed to bringing the two together for the benefit of students.

Higher education should be able to trust Career Centers to orchestrate institutional career initiatives, and accept accountability for results.

Impact of the recession on institutional responsibility for career preparation

At the beginning of the most recent recession, few realized the employment impact would last as long as it has: For the past five years, the unemployment rate for 20-24 year old bachelor’s degree graduates has decreased by only a percentage point—from just over 9% to 8%. At the same time, over a third of young college grads are believed to be mal-employed—employed either part-time or in jobs that do not require a college degree.

Parents worry about their sons and daughters not getting jobs commensurate with their college education. They also worry about the rising cost of higher education. It now costs an average of almost $40,000 a year to attend a private college—a rate that has risen 2.3% a year above the rate of inflation for the past decade.

Given unemployment rates and the cost of college, there is no reason to believe college students and their families will cease their concerns about employment prospects any time soon, and every reason to believe that the college that does nothing will lose good potential applicants.

Instituting an integrated approach

Students clearly need help transitioning from college to career. Our current system is not working, and senior administrators in colleges and universities must play a much greater role in ensuring that students are prepared.

But, career preparation is not something that happens overnight, or in a senior year counseling session at the Career Center. It is part of a process that begins with exploration in the first year, and ends after the student has found success in her bid for a job, fellowship, or a place on a post-graduate course.

And, responsibility for improving career preparation cannot be solely the responsibility of either the academic side of the house, or the Career Center. It requires all those with a stake in student success to work together.

What we need is an integrated approach to helping students develop the skills, characteristics and knowledge that will change employers’ minds about the potential of our students, and make graduates job ready on day one. This doesn’t mean changing the nature of education; it just means being more intentional about connecting the dots for students between college and career.

Now is the time for organizations like AAC&U, NASPA and NACE to step up to the plate and lead a national conversation with higher education leaders and Career Centers about their roles and responsibilities in preparing students for the next stage of their lives.

We owe it to our students and graduates.

Aligning Employer Needs with Student Learning in College

In President Obama’s 2014 speech at Knox College, he called the “undisciplined system where costs just keep on going up and up and up” in colleges and universities unsustainable, and said he would lay out an aggressive strategy to shake up higher education. A better approach would be for higher education to take the lead and accelerate the pace at which it re-invents itself, while making more effective use of institutional funds.

Re-thinking College to Career

A key place for higher education to start is in re-thinking how students can be better prepared to find work. Most colleges would agree that the perception of job success after graduation from a particular institution is a key driver of matriculation, and that more successful graduates eventually lead to greater philanthropy. But too much of the attention paid to the goal of career preparation is simply lip service, with the blame going to Career Services offices when results are poor. Career Services certainly need to be part of the re-invention process, and take a much more data-driven approach to their work. But they can’t solve their students’ career problems without broad institutional support on the front end.

What Employers Want

All the career assistance in the world is not going to help the student who isn’t qualified. Yet how many of our institutions have any sense of what employers are expecting of students and graduates when they hire them for internships and full time work? According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Job Outlook 2013 Spring Update, employers rank the most desired skills and characteristics as follows:

#1 Ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization
#2 Ability to make decisions and solve problems
#3 Ability to obtain and process information
#4 Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work
#5 Ability to analyze quantitative data
#6 Technical knowledge related to the job
#7 Proficiency with computer software programs
#8 Ability to create and/or edit written reports
#9 Ability to sell or influence others

Mapping how students can acquire the necessary skills

During the time a student is in college, he or she typically has four ways through which to develop the skills required by employers: The classroom; co-curricular or extracurricular activities; internships or other experiential education; and, the Career Center. The easiest way to become competent in any of these areas is through internships. But that doesn’t mean we can’t significantly boost many the student’s skill sets and desired characteristics while they are on campus.The following chart illustrates the opportunities:

2013 Skills Employers Seek NACE, AACU

The graduate skills deficit

As the above chart indicates, there are multiple ways during the time students are in college to help them acquire practical skills. But cross referencing the NACE employer data with data from the Hart Research Associates’ survey of employers conducted for the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) illustrates that there is much work still to be done. Of the nine top skill sets identified as important in the NACE survey, six were highlighted in the AACU survey as areas to which higher education should pay more attention.

The three top areas in which employers found students deficient were:
1) verbal communications
2) written communications
3) problem solving and decision making

What can colleges and universities do?

What stands out from a review of employer needs and college graduate deficits is that a new way of preparation from college to career is required. If we want students to acquire the skills sought by employers, we must be clear how, where and why they need to develop them. We can’t just say “go to the Career Center and go there early”. The fact is, skills required by employers take time to develop. Staff in the Career Center don’t have that time, or even, perhaps, the expertise. They are better positioned to concentrate on teaching students the job search strategies and skills they need to be successful in their applications for employment.

One argument against building skill development into classes is that it will somehow diminish the quality of the education. But, integrating such skills into a course is totally consistent with a highly rigorous education–even a liberal arts education. There are plenty of ways, for example, that opportunities to do oral presentations can be built into humanities classes, or white papers required in classes on pressing social issues. Even statistics classes can require students to develop problem solving skills using real world examples, like analyzing baseball scores.

The key is to help students understand what they need to learn, advise them how to learn it, and help them reflect on how to practice and enhance skills in and out of the classroom. There are roles for faculty, administrators, alumni, coaches and career professionals to play. When the entire institution is involved in preparing students for post-graduation success in a very targeted way, we have a much greater chance of making that success happen.

Position Vacancy: Associate Provost-Career + Professional Development, LMU — App. Deadline: Friday, Feb 15, 2015

LMU-LAApplication Deadline:  Friday, February 13, 2015
LMU seeks an Associate Provost who embraces Jesuit traditions of educating the whole person, and is passionate about connecting education to transformative lives after graduation. Together with a career team and strategic partners at LMU, the Associate Provost is responsible for building programs, services, and connections that will enhance career outcomes for all students, regardless of their course of study.  Loyola Marymount University, founded in 1911, is a comprehensive university in the mainstream of American Catholic higher education. Located on the west side of Los Angeles overlooking the Pacific, LMU is one of the nation’s 28 Jesuit colleges and universities and five Marymount institutions. It serves approximately 6,000 undergraduates and 3,000 graduate students.


LMU Position Profile–PDF


Associate Provost-Career and Professional Development

Position Vacancy: Associate Dean, Career + Co-op, SAIC (Chicago)


The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is seeking a forward-thinking Associate Dean, Career + Co-Op who can play a leadership role in defining the contributions of art and design graduates to the global economy. The Associate Dean will identify innovative ways to connect the SAIC curriculum to productive and successful lives after college, expanding SAIC students’ opportunities to make a difference–both in their own post-graduation lives and those of the communities in which they work.


Position Profile: Associate Dean, Career + Co-Op, SAIC

SAIC Position Profile—PDF


New Grads Left Behind in Jobs Recovery of 2013

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released its annual unemployment statistics for 2013, there was good news for every major cohort except one: Bachelor’s degree grads aged 20-24.

Since the peak unemployment years of 2009/2010. College grads over 25 experienced a 24% decrease (blue bar). But the unemployment rate for young college grads only declined by 13%–from a high of 9.2% to a 2013 average of 8% (red bar).

Despite the high expectations of employers for increased hiring of new college grads, the unemployment rate of this group between 2012 and 2013 completely stalled.

Typically, young grads have had an easier time finding work than the general population. Not so in 2013. While the overall unemployment rate for everyone in the civilian population over the age of 16 was 7.35%, 8% of college grads aged 20-24 were unable to find any employment—let alone employment that was full time and required a college degree.

This has clearly been a frustrating time for new college grads. Faced with the daunting prospect of trying to find work commensurate with their college education, many have settled for employment they could have secured without a college degree. And that has almost certainly negatively impacted their ability to repay college loans.

Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, estimates that the number of recent grads who have taken lower level positions has jumped from around 27% in 2007 to 37% in 2013–a poor return on the student’s tuition investment.

Why have young grads not benefitted from general improvements in the economy and a soaring stock market? No one knows for sure, but there may be a clue in the study released in October 2013 by Chegg, the Student Hub and Harris Interactive, that identified a big gap in the skills graduates thought they possessed, and the skills employers want.

If young graduates are not ready for the workforce, employers may reject them in favor of their older, more experienced peers.

Given the cost of education, and the increasing demand for a return on the tuition investment, it is in everyone’s best interest to address the problems associated with young graduate unemployment and underemployment.

No longer can colleges and universities sit on the sidelines and wait for the economy to improve. The economy has improved, but new grads have still been left behind.

This situation has repercussions for higher education: Unemployed and mal-employed college grads are, for example, less likely than those who are employed to recommend their college to prospective students, or to contribute to its coffers.

The smart colleges and universities will be those that recognize they can gain a strategic advantage by investing in the career preparation of their students, and giving them a greater helping hand in finding their initial positions.

Career Deceptions

We can all recite the message: Do well at school, load up on extra-curriculars, go to a good college, graduate, get a well-paying job. It sounds easy. Well worth the tuition investment and the second mortgage. Sadly, as any investment prospectus will tell you, past performance should not be seen as an indicator of futureperformance. Nowhere is that more true than in the careers world, where unemployment rates for young grads have been at historic highs for several years. Our students are floundering, but many careers offices are ill-equipped, and insufficiently resourced to provide the kind of help they need. And, students haven’t been told that success requires their active involvement. It’s time for a new message. It’s time for a new model of Career Services.

On January 7, 2014, from 11:30-12:30pm EST, Sheila Curran will present the opening keynote address for the InternBridge Career Services Online Conference: Career Deceptions: How We Are Failing Our College Grads, and What We Must Do About It. Use code word Curran for a 10% discount through the link The brief presentation will be followed by an extensive discussion with the online audience.

A More Honest Approach to College Career Preparation

Surveys say many students unprepared for the job search

Thirty-one percent of employers believe that recent graduates are unprepared or very unprepared for their job search. That’s according to a study of over 700 employers, conducted in late fall 2012 by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace, titled “The Role of Higher Education in Career Development: Employer Perceptions”.

That students lack the skills to find work in 2013 may be a surprise to those who foot the bills for their education, or teach in the halls of academe. But it’s no shock to many in the career services field, who find most students unwilling to devote even half an hour a week in their senior year to the job search.

The messages given to students from the first year on need to be changed

Before blaming students for being “career slackers”, colleges should consider the messages they send to students. Viewbooks tout the success of a university’s graduates, but they often selectively use data that implies exceptional results. Often, data is based on response rates of under 20% of graduating seniors. Rarely do pre-matriculation materials tell the real story of what happens to the “average” graduate.

The problem of educating students about career preparation goes far beyond admissions brochures. How many schools tell students at convocation or orientation that they should be thinking about building career skills at the same time that they are developing their intellectual capacity? Too many students think if they got into a good school, they’ll get a good job. No problem!

Students need to know what really matters to employers

In the absence of accurate information, students flock to majors like economics and business, because they believe it will be their ticket to a job. It is up to colleges to bust the myths about major and GPA that have become common lore among students, and provide advising that can help students navigate paths to their desired area of employment.

Some of the most surprising findings of the report titled “The Role of Higher Education in Career Development: Employer Perceptions” include the following:

• 78% of employers will consider any major. Only 19% of employers look for specific majors and do not consider candidates without them

• Work experience (particularly internships and other work during school) is more important to employers than academic credentials, including GPA, and college major

• An internship is the single most important credential for recent college graduates to have on their resume

• Most interviewers value extracurricular activities, like professional clubs, athletics and service, more than GPA

• The skills employers find most lacking in job candidates are written and oral communication skills, adaptability, managing multiple priorities, making decisions, and problem solving

• Employers want students to improve their knowledge of the organization and industry to which they are applying, and should do a better job of interviewing

Colleges should articulate how students can gain the knowledge, skills and experience required by employers

Data gathered February through March 2013 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), highlight other important skills that employers seek in entry-level college graduates. Each college and university should take this information and lay out for students how they can acquire these skills both inside and outside the classroom. Skills are listed in order of priority to employers:

• Ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization

• Ability to make decisions and solve problems

• Ability to obtain and process information

• Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work

• Ability to analyze quantitative data

• Technical knowledge related to the job

• Proficiency with computer software programs

• Ability to create and/or edit written reports

• Ability to sell or influence others

When students understand what they need to know and how to acquire the necessary skills for success, they will be much more likely to understand the rationale for thinking about careers early in their time at college.

An online employer survey released in April, 2013 by Hart Research Associates for The Association of American Colleges and Universities, echoes a number of the same findings in the surveys described above. Ninety-three percent of the surveyed employers, for example, agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major”.

Colleges must find ways to help students apply learning in real world settings

Employers in all three surveys see room for improvement in the way students are prepared for the workforce. Their most important message is that colleges and universities need to find ways to help students apply their learning in real-world settings. No longer can internships and other experiential learning simply be delegated to a junior professional in the careers office with few resources.

Career preparation of college students is often seen as predominantly the responsibility of the career services offices. Certainly, these offices should be held accountable for enabling students to make good decisions about career choices and develop job search skills. But what the Chronicle, AAC&U and NACE surveys highlight is that success in finding work requires the development of knowledge and skills over the entire time a student is in college, not simply in the last two or three years. Job search savvy only makes a difference when students can demonstrate how their educational background and experience meet an employer’s needs.

Preparing students for the world of work is an institutional responsibility, requiring a coordinated strategy. Career services offices, senior administrators, faculty, advisors, and employers must all play a role in charting a clearer path to graduate success.

Re-thinking Career Services in Times of Employment Uncertainty

In the spring, all eyes are on new college graduates and their future plans. Current indications are that the employment situation is easing, but bachelor’s graduates aged 20-24 still face plenty of challenges. Average annual unemployment rates for this cohort have remained stubbornly around 9%, and underemployment is rampant. So who has been helping these students and grads get a leg up, especially if they don’t have well-connected parents or a stellar GPA?

This monumental task has, in the eyes of parents and the public at least, been assigned to College Career Services offices. But few have held higher education accountable for making this service work. And, if parents are expecting any kind of personal attention for their sons and daughters, they will frequently be sorely disappointed.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2012 survey of over 800 colleges and universities, there is an average of one careers professional for every 1645 students served. Staffing ratios are substantially worse at large public institutions and correspondingly better at small liberal arts colleges. Some colleges—even relatively small ones—spend as little as $50 per student per year on career-related services. Over the past three, economically challenging, years, the budget situation for careers offices has actually deteriorated. NACE data shows that nationwide, the median operating budget for careers offices shrank 8% between 2010 and 2012, from $34,000 to $31,000.

At a time when we should be expecting colleges to enhance their career services to students, many have taken a defeatist approach, lacking confidence to believe that anything they do could make their graduates more attractive to employers. To many in higher education, careers offices are cost centers that deserve to receive the same reductions as every other administrative office. And, career leaders have too often been complicit in their own marginalization, unwilling to challenge the status quo on behalf of students.

Connecting College to Career in 2012

In the midst of this bleak picture, a recent conference at Wake Forest University, titled Re-thinking Success: From the Liberal Arts to Careers in the 21st Century offers a glimmer of hope. The Conference drew a crowd of over 200 presidents, faculty, high-ranking college administrators, and career directors for an inaugural three-day discussion.

The brainchild of President Nathan Hatch, and Vice President for Personal and Professional Development, Andy Chan, Re-thinking Success brought together leaders from academia, industry, the media, and careers, in a forum designed to start a national conversation about how students can best navigate from college to career.

The Conference provided plenty of compelling reasons why colleges—particularly those where student majors don’t automatically equate to specific careers—need to provide a better ROI for families. And, schools like Wake Forest, the University of Chicago and Washington University, provided eloquent testimony on the potential impact of careers offices, when they have institutional support.

But there’s the rub. Despite the evidence that successful career initiatives can encourage matriculation, enhance alumni engagement, and even contribute to fundraising goals, the majority of colleges and universities are stuck in an old paradigm, oblivious to the opportunity for institutional differentiation through graduate success. Sadly, most career leaders have been unsuccessful at conveying the potential value of their initiatives.

Leading from Below

The Re-thinking Success Conference illustrated the importance of senior leadership in enhancing career outcomes. High visibility, large budgets, internship funding, and presidential support send a strong message that work experience and career preparation are an important part of an institution’s enduring value to students. But when budgets are tight, and there are multiple pressing problems to address, elevating graduate success to the top of the agenda is difficult. The careers message can often get lost, obscured by more immediate issues relating to faculty, admissions, and fundraising.

The answer is to lead from below. Career directors have often shied away from greater visibility and accountability. But if change is going to happen, and the marginalization of careers offices stopped, those closest to the career success of graduates will need to take responsibility for moving the agenda.

Key Strategies for Moving the Careers Agenda: A Plan for Career Directors

  • Know what results you intend to achieve, craft a compelling story, and become visible. Getting other people excited about your vision for graduate career success is critical.
  • Don’t ask for money—at least, not yet. Show what you can do by a critical review of your operations in light of your new vision. Get data to identify what services, functions and programs create the best results. When you’re not getting real value for money, cut the activity.
  • Redistribute your discretionary money, for example, corporate donations or career fair fees. Use the money to get some quick, high-impact, wins. Try a few pilot programs to show what you can do with limited funds.
  • Partner with faculty. Educate them about what their graduates are doing and encourage them to share career stories that were influenced by the student’s choice of academic study. Support their desire to attract more students to their major. And, if the Romance Language faculty plan to offer a seminar on careers using languages, offer to co-sponsor and promote the program.
  • Build systems to capture and nurture contacts who can be helpful in advising students on their careers or promoting their career success. Faculty and administrators will be happy to provide you with names when they trust the information will be wisely used.
  • Identify how career outcomes and your new initiatives can help other departments achieve their goals. Admissions offices need career success stories. Alumni Relations professionals appreciate the opportunity to partner on successful programs involving alumni. And, plenty of schools have discovered that careers professionals can help pave the way for discussions with donors on multiple institutional fundraising priorities.
  • Build a career community of alumni, parents and friends, all of whom have a vested interest in the career success of students and graduates.
  • Engage students, early and often, and make them partners in their own success. One reason why students are often disappointed with Career Services is that they don’t understand their own roles and responsibilities. Students typically don’t listen to adults, but their parents listen to university messages, and students do listen to each other. Make sure students play a leadership role within the careers office as peer advisors and program directors. When students have ownership of initiatives, they are much more likely to encourage the involvement of their peers than when they are simply “consumers” of career services.
  • Find opportunities to talk to senior leaders and trustees. Be the resident expert on careers. These meetings are wasted if you simply talk about what services and programs you offer. Instead, paint the national picture, using data and anecdotes. Then relate what’s going on outside the academy to what is happening to your students. Finally, explain what you have been able to accomplish with your current budget and the impact additional resources would have on your students’ potential for success.

When senior leaders have no experience with careers, getting them to ease up on the purse strings is a challenge. But, your energy, excitement and vision can go a long way to convincing them that a new approach to careers can be as good for the institution as it will undoubtedly be for students, especially when your success is backed up by verifiable metrics.

An Alternative Graduation Speech for Parents of New College Grads

There ought to be a second graduation speech just for parents, in the afternoon, after the celebratory lunch, while the kids are off whooping it up. It should go like this: We know you have a great kid. We also know that, as amazing as she is, she may not have a job lined up, and that this fact is eating away at you.

Oh, sure you may have heard that hiring on college campuses is up more than ten percent from the past few economically horrendous years, but you’ve also heard that there are still over 30 applicants for every job and a backlog of unemployed young people milling round out there. You want to hear a speech full of practical advice about how you can help your kid land a job. Here it is:

Get them to network in four different ways

You may have a bleak image in your mind: Your kid, sitting at the computer in your house day after day, responding to online job listings. Is this the new job search, you wonder? Thankfully no; that would be isolating and depressing. Your new grad will need to use the computer and social media in her job search, but she will also need to get out there and make connections with real people.

First, have her contact her college career center. Job opportunities these days
emanate from a diverse array of companies, far different from the Fortune 500 firms that dominated the landscape when you first looked for work. Many career centers’ counselors are knowledgeable about these opportunities. They may also help her compose her resume and cover letters; gain access to job and internships listings, and companies’ recruiting systems; and learn how to use social media in her search. Luckily, summer’s a quieter time for them. If she lives close enough to go in person, even better.

Next, suggest she join fellow alums of her alma mater on, after establishing her own profile. This will allow her to connect with alums who graduated within a few years of her, and to see what career paths they have taken. If they have listed their college major, she’ll be able to search by that, too. She may find that fellow alums are eager to help her once she has a better idea of what she’s looking for.

After that, she ought to visit the local Chamber of Commerce or State Office of Business Development, where employees can direct her to a wealth of information on local companies and potentially even opportunities for freelancers.

Lastly, have her seek informational interviews, in which she can learn how people in careers that interest her got their start, or what skills they deem important to their success. If you know someone in such a field, you could ask if they’d be open to talking with her. She should go in with thoughtful, focused questions. One warning: If your kid has never before emailed someone to ask for this particular favor, guide him in composing his first request so that he doesn’t naively ask too much of the person, as in, “Hi, I’d love to hear everything you know about becoming an entrepreneur.”

Convince them to do some research

Especially in the early days after graduation, many grads find it useful to initiate broad Google searches, such as: “What kind of jobs can a psychology major do?” Get yours to also stop by your largest local public library, and speak to the (always very helpful) business librarian. He or she can direct your child to databases, like, which contain vast amounts of information on industries, companies and their competitors.

The job search will be faster if your new grad taps into all of these resources. Example: while visiting the Chamber of Commerce, your daughter learns of a local start-up that has recently received a large contract. She researches its competition at the library, and discovers, on, a fellow graduate who has done freelance consulting for the firm. He gives her insight into its culture and goals, which helps your daughter go into an interview far better-informed than other applicants. He may also give her ideas on which Community College courses prepared him to be an effective freelancer.

Clue them in to what employers want to hear

When new grads hear about a particularly appealing job, they often get caught up in how happy it would make them to land it. What they neglect to focus on is: what kind of applicant, with what skills and personal qualities, is most likely to get the job? Offer to read through job listings with your grad and say, “Here’s what I think they’re looking for in an employee.” Emphasize that interviewers are looking not only for enthusiastic applicants, but also for ones who are focused on what they have to offer the company.

Urge them to learn one new skill a month

When your son sits down for an interview, the prospective employer may ask him what he’s been doing since he graduated. “Looking for a job,” he’ll say. How much more impressive if he can add: “I also learned Java and how to design a website,” The more talents he has, the more marketable he is. He’ll also come across as resourceful, a go-getter who will find ways to contribute to his team.

Assure them they will get hired if they persevere

There may well be days when you get as frustrated as your child with her continued lack of a job. Perhaps you come home after work to find her acting as if she has given up: parked glumly in front of the TV, or on Facebook. Worse, you’ve just talked to a few friends whose own new grads found work (for seemingly vast sums of money). If at those moments you can be supportive, you’ll help her to get back out there the next day.

Remind yourself that just as not all kids learned to walk exactly the same week of theirlives, they won’t all master job-hunting the same week. Swear to your child that her time will come—as long as she persists in networking, researching, and mastering new skills.

Now tell them they own the job search

Never invest more time in your kid’s quest to find a job than he is. It’s one thing (reasonable) to offer to proofread his resume. It’s another to actually compose it for him. If you are the one googling what careers math majors can have, or the one tracking down alums from his college for him to email, how will he learn to research or network on his own behalf? He needs to develop these skills for the next time, when he’s ready to jump further up the career ladder.

Okay, that’s the speech. Now you can drive off into the sunset with your kid, back home for a short while–until he sets off on his own for good. And maybe, just maybe, five years down the road, your one-time new grad will be offering you career advice.

Unemployment of Recent College Grads a Key Threat to Higher Education

With the skyrocketing cost of education, families increasingly make matriculation decisions based on the perception that a particular college’s students get good jobs. Until recently, the ability to verify those perceptions has been limited. But now, there is a push for greater transparency, as illustrated by the introduction of the College Scorecard.

Are colleges ready and prepared to provide the information families need? And, how will prospective students react to comprehensive data on the real career outcomes of recent college grads? Colleges and universities need to embrace the new transparency, and where they identify unsatisfactory results, take measures to enhance career preparation.

The national situation for recent college grads

In February, unemployment statistics hit a milestone. The 7.7% overall unemployment rate, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics was the lowest in four years. This unemployment rate covers everyone in the civilian population, regardless of educational attainment. Sadly, not all populations have been affected equally by the good unemployment news. Bachelor’s degree graduates under the age of 25 were among those groups hardest hit by the Great Recession; and, even as the economy recovers, 8.3% of this cohort who want work have been unable to find anything at all.

Career outcomes affect matriculation

The poor job prospects of a large number of new graduates has become a key threat to success for many colleges, impacting them where it hurts most: the decision whether or not to matriculate at a particular school.

Today’s students look at college in a very different way than their parents. In 1976, two thirds of incoming freshmen claimed that getting a better job was a prime reason for getting a college education. At that time, there was an unquestioned assumption that a college education was a leg up on the career ladder.

The Higher Education Research Institute’s 2012 survey of college freshmen shows how much has changed in the past few decades: now, almost 88% of students select their college because they perceive its graduates get good jobs. Students know college costs have risen dramatically, particularly in the past ten years, and they and their parents want to know whether the investment is worth the price.

Until now, the decision to matriculate has often been made based on blind faith that the chosen college or university will lead to a good job. Few prospective families evaluate the strength of the career preparation provided, or the resources devoted to helping students gain access to job and internship opportunities. Higher education should be concerned that when the bill-payers start to scrutinize career outcomes the way they would an investment in stocks or a new house, they will be not be impressed.

College Scorecard encourages investigation of career outcomes

The College Scorecard, introduced by the Department of Education in February 2013 is intended to make it much easier for families to get the answers they need about individual colleges and universities, and compare costs, student debt, and employment prospects for the school’s graduates.

Once students and their parents become used to comparing information about the colleges in which they are interested, they will be more likely to demand detailed statistics on employment. At present, the College Scorecard has not started to post employment information. Instead, it advises families to contact the relevant college or university for more information on how many students get jobs, what kinds of jobs they get and how much those graduates typically earn.
Higher education is not ready for the kind of scrutiny on career outcomes that the College Scorecard recommends.

Career outcomes data hard to find, and even harder to interpret

Most families who ask colleges about careers ask very generic questions, for example “how many Fortune 500 companies recruit on campus”, or “how many students get into law school or medical school”. Since the majority of parents have little knowledge about what it takes for new graduates to successfully find employment in the 21st century, they are blissfully unaware of the kinds of questions they should be asking. Most are simply reassured by answers that imply that a college’s graduates do very well—no matter that there is no comprehensive data to back up the claims.

When parents try to find career information on college websites or in Viewbooks, they are often thwarted in their efforts. An electronic search on career outcomes or career statistics at a particular college often generates no results, or results that are misleading. Sometimes the response rate–if even mentioned–is less than 25%; salary information is hard to find; and there is no indication of what steps graduates took to secure their success. There are, however, a number of institutions that can serve as models: A prime example of a school that is serious about data collection is the University of Pennsylvania. U Penn received a survey response rate of 71% from the Class of 2011, and provides a full picture of each graduating class’ career outcomes that is easily accessible to both internal and external audiences.

Later this year, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) is expected to produce guidelines for data collection on career outcomes, so that schools can standardize their procedures and facilitate comparisons. However, standardization is only part of the problem. Schools will need to change their cultures so that students are expected and even incentivized to provide career-related information. They will also need to devote time and personnel to analyzing data and using it to guide services and initiatives.

Career outcomes information may not paint a positive picture

An important consideration for colleges and universities, as they commit to greater transparency about career outcomes, is that the results may not be as good as their rhetoric. According to a 2013 report titled “Why Are Recent College Graduates Underemployed” conducted by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, almost half of all employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies as not requiring a four-year education.

Given the impact of the recession and the difficulty in finding any job, the situation for recent graduates is undoubtedly much worse than for their older peers. When a bachelor’s degree from a particular college is not perceived to lead to more money and a better position, families will increasingly question the value of that institution.

Taking action based on data

It is likely that private institutions will have some breathing room before being required to provide employment and salary information on their graduates. The pressure from families, however, may be sufficient to prod institutions towards transparency long before the advent of regulations. If colleges and universities truly want to make careers an institutional advantage that encourages matriculation, they need to think about obtaining good baseline data starting with the Class of 2013. Only then can they see where an investment in career preparation or the enhancement of opportunities can pay the greatest dividends.

Essential Data on Colleges and Careers

Information gathered by Sheila J. Curran, March, 2009, revised July, 2012

Across the country, colleges and universities are re-thinking goals and aspirations in light of diminishing revenues and falling endowments. At the same time, prospective students and their families increasingly seek an economic value for their tuition investment.  These realities conflict when it comes to providing exceptional career assistance to students and alumni. The following data support the assertion that colleges and universities need to focus not only on student learning outcomes, but also on ensuring the success of their graduates.

DATA ON COLLEGE GRADUATES  (Bachelor’s degree and above)

Source: Chart A-4, Employment status of the college-educated civilian population 25 years and over, Bureau of Labor Statistics

  • Unemployment rate 4.6% for college graduates over age 25 (June, 2012)
  • Unemployment rate 5% for college graduates over age 25 (June, 2011)
  • Unemployment rate 5.1% for college graduates over age 25 (June, 2010)
  • Unemployment rate 5.5% for college graduates over age 25 (June, 2009)
  • Unemployment rate 2.5% for college graduates over age 25 (June, 2008)
  • 100% increase in unemployment over 4 years (June, 2008 – June, 2012)
  • Highest unemployment rate among college graduates over 25: 5.9% in February, 2010; Lowest unemployment rate among college graduates over 25: 1.4% in December 2000

Source: BLS Table Ten (unpublished), Employment status of college and high school graduates under the age of 25, Bureau of Labor Statistics

  • Unemployment rate for bachelors’ degree college graduates under the age of 25 was 9.9% in July, 2012 vs. 12% in July, 2011 vs. 10.9% in July, 2010 vs. 10.8% in July, 2009 vs. 6.5% in July, 2008, a 52% increase over the past four years.
  • 30,000 more bachelor’s degree grads under 25 are currently unemployed than at this time last year (July, 2012 vs. July, 2011).
  • 197,000 more bachelor’s degree grads under 25 are currently employed than at this time last year (April, 2012 vs. April, 2011).
Unemployment rates for high school graduates with no college were 18.4% in July, 2012 vs. 18.2% in July, 2011, vs. 20.7% in July, 2010 vs 19.3% in July, 2009 vs. 12.9% in July, 2008. This represents a 42.6% increase over the last four years.

Source: National Association of Colleges and Employers, National Association of Colleges and Employers, November 2010 information from Job Outlook 2011. Data was collected from 172 companies.

  • Employers intend to increase entry-level hiring of college graduates by 13.5% in 2011, after a 5.3% increase in 2010, and a 22% decrease in 2008
19.7% of college graduates who applied for a job in 2009, actually have one by graduation. (News release, May 6, 2009, from NACE 2009 Student Survey.) This figure compares to 26% in the Class of 2008 and 51% of the Class of 2007
  • 27% of the Class of 2009 planned to go on to further education (NACE 2009 Student Survey)

Sheila Curran prediction for the Class of 2009, made January, 2009: 70% of those students who wanted jobs would not have one lined up by graduation, and 30% of the Class of 2009 who wanted jobs would still be looking for appropriate work when the Class of 2010 graduates.  These estimates are based on NACE statistics, statistics from Michigan State, observation of student behavior and career center informal reports from across the country.

Source: Unemployment at Highest Rate in over 25 years, Economic Policy Institute, March 6, 2009

“…more than one in seven workers in this country—an estimated 23.1 million people—was either unemployed or underemployed in February [2009]. Since the start of the recession, the number of involuntary part-time workers has increased by 4 million, from 4.6 million to 8.6 million.

Long-term unemployment—the share of the unemployed who have been without a job for more than six months—also remained high at 23.1%, which is unsurprising given that there are currently over 4 unemployed workers per job opening last month. In this labor market, unemployed workers are seeing their chances of finding a job grow ever dimmer”

Source: Almanac Issue, 2010-2011, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Degrees conferred in FY ’08

  • 1,563,075 students graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2008
  • 626,397 students graduated with a master’s degree in 2008 and
  • 84,960 students graduated with a PhD in 2008
155,625 of the students graduating with a master’s degree studied Business, Management or Marketing
  • 32,387 graduated with a J.D.
  • 13,025 graduated with an M.D.

Student Employment

In FY ’08, 43% of students enrolled full-time in 4-year colleges also worked. Over a quarter of all students enrolled full-time in 4-year colleges worked more 20 hours per week.


Source: Key Drivers of Educational Value: The Emergence of Educational ROI, Eduventures, December 2006, 6000+ respondents

Leading drivers of educational value among freshmen are

  • professional preparation (72%)
  • strength of the academic program (62%), and
  • affordability (47%)

Source: Messaging the Attributes of Academic Reputation, Eduventures, 2007
, 240 prospective students, question about expectations of their selected college, Scale of 1-7, with an answer of 7 meaning that it is most likely a selected college would lead to this result

  • Ability to develop a career in which I will enjoy working:  6.3
Ability to find a job quickly after graduation:  6.2
  • Ability to get into graduate or professional school of my choice:  6.0
  • Ability to develop a career that will provide a good salary:  6.0
  • Ability to repay student loans:  5.7

Source: The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall, 2009, University of California, Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute

Reasons noted as very important in selecting college attended (2008 figures in parentheses:

  • This college’s graduates get good jobs: 56.5% (54.8%)
  • The cost of attending this college: 41.6% (39.9%)
A visit to campus: 41.4% (41.4%)
  • I wanted to go to a school about the size of this college: 39.8% (38.5%)
This college’s graduates gain admission to top graduate/professional schools: 34.6% (35.1%)


Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, (Sheila Curran analysis on the five-year period between 2004 and 2008)

  • The median average salary for a college graduate (bachelor’s degree only) rose from $19474 to $22033
The average annual percentage increase in salary between 2004 and 2008 for a college graduate was 2.6%
  • The average increase in inflation between 2004 and 2008 was 3.2%

Source: Almanac Issue, 2010-2011, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Number of non-profit 4-year Colleges/Universities in US:  2204

Costs, including tuition, fees, accommodation, transportation, books

(FY ’09 data in parentheses)

  • Average cost of private 4-year college: $39,028 ($37,390); 4.38% increase
  • Average cost of public 4-year colleges (out-of-state): 30,916 ($29,193); 5.9% increase
  • Average cost of public 4-year colleges (in-state): $19,388 ($18,326); 5.79% increase

Source: Trends in Higher Education Series, 2007, Table 3a, College Board

“The average annual rate of increase [college tuition] during this period [1997-98 to 2007-08] was 5.6%–2.9% after adjusting for inflation.”

Source: Up, Up, and Away,

October 5, 2008“For the first time in history,…the price of a year at these schools [Boston College, Boston University] and many others has surpassed the median US household income of $50,233”

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS

Last modified  March 29, 2011, from BLS Table 10 data for December, 2008 and December, 2010.

Unemployment Rate in December 2010, vs. Unemployment Rate in December, 2008

Data is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is for graduates over the age of 25.

Bachelor’s degree, 2010: 5.3% (2008: 3.6%); 2010 under 25: 9.6%

Associate degree, 2010: 6.3% (2008: 4.3%); 2010 under 25: 7.9%

High school graduate, 2010: 10% (2008: 7.9%); 2010 under 25: 19%

Less than a high school diploma, 2010: 16.2% (2008: 12.1%); 2010 under 25: 25.8%

Annual Earnings in 2010 vs. 2008, based on December data from CPS

Bachelor’s degree: $53,976 in 2010 vs. $52,624 in 2008, a 2.5% increase

Associate degree:$38,168 in 2010 vs. $37, 544 in 2008, a 1.6% increase

High school graduate: $32,552 in 2010 vs. $32,136 in 2008, a 1.3% increase

Less than a high school diploma: $23,088 in 2010 vs. 23,556 in 2008, a 1.9% decrease


Source: Research, 2006-2007, National Association of Colleges and Universities (NACE),

512 institutions responded and NACE 2011 Career Services Benchmark Survey, 750 colleges and universities responded.

# of Careers Offices reporting to Student Affairs: 67.1% in FY07; 63.6% in FY11

# of Careers Offices reporting to Academic Affairs: 17.7% in FY07; 24% in FY11

35% more careers offices are reporting to Academic Affairs in FY11 than did so in FY07

Source: NACE Research Job Outlook 2011: From the section titled What Employers Want: Candidate Skills and Qualities.

  1. Communication skills (verbal)
  2. Strong work ethic
  3. Teamwork skills
  4. Analytical skills
  5. Initiative
  6. Problem solving skills
Communication skills (written)
  8. Interpersonal skills
Computer skills
  10. Flexibility/adaptability

The biggest gaps between skill sets required and skill sets demonstrated by new graduates (as perceived by employers) are:

1. Interpersonal skills

2. Strong work ethic

3. Flexibility/adaptability

4. Verbal communication skills
5. Initiative
Students’ computer skills are most in line with employer requirements.

In choosing between two candidates with equivalent skills, the following factors come into play:

1. Relevant work experience

2. Experience in a leadership capacity

3. Major

4. High GPA

5. Involvement in extra-curricular activities
6. School attended
7. Volunteer involvement

Source: Doing More with Less, Development Learning Collaborative Roundtable, Eduventures, February 20, 2009. 33 respondents. Polling question on “What services is your institution increasing for alumni in response to the economy”.

• Online/Social Networking:   76%

• Alumni Networking Events:  64%

• Career counseling/advising: 48%


Source: Five Year Out Alumni Survey, Class of 2001Duke University, March, 2007 (commissioned by Sheila Curran)

75% of those who wanted jobs found jobs within six months of graduation

27% have remained with the same company

43% are in a different career field than the one they entered immediately after graduation

44% are still not sure they are in the right career field
They have held an average of 2.79 jobs each

50% of the time, they found jobs through personal connections

60% of the time, their career choices were influenced somewhat or a great deal by their parents

The most useful skills gained through their college education were

• Writing

• Teamwork

• Organizational leadership

• Research

Source: 70% of Gen Y Leave First Job within Two Years, Experience, Inc., September, 2008

70% of recent graduates left their job within two years of their joining

43% are not in the career they expected to be in after college

60% are currently looking for another job or career

57% report being happy in their current job

74% of recent graduates are in a career that aligns with their college major.

The Career Center of the Future: Recruiting Exceptional Leaders

Three years of high unemployment for recent graduates have convinced senior leaders in colleges and universities that they must pay greater attention to preparing their students for life after college. Increasingly, that means re-visioning the role of the career director and her department.

Many long-term career directors have recently observed significant increases in their 403B accounts and are choosing to retire. That means colleges now have the opportunity to go from vision to action.

Deans and vice presidents embrace the idea of finding new career leaders who think broadly and strategically about their role inside and outside their institutions. They are excited by the prospect of finding candidates who are “connectors”—leaders who are adept at bringing many parts of their institution together to support student career development, whether that development happens as part of a course, through internships, study abroad or leadership on the athletics field. And, senior leaders increasingly recognize that their career directors will be doing work that directly affects institutional strategic objectives.

Sadly, hiring managers often find their applicant pools lacking in appropriate candidates. It’s not surprising: In this economy, when selling a house or finding a job for a spouse is tough, good candidates are staying put. They will only move for a position that looks significantly better than their current situation. On paper, many of these new career director postings do not look inspiring.

Recently, I was sent job descriptions for career directors at three forward-thinking universities. With the exception of references to technology, the descriptions could have been written in the 1970s. For a search to generate good candidates, descriptions must reflect institutional excitement for a new model of career preparation, along with a clear articulation of what constitutes success.

The Career Center of 2012 demands a leader who understands both academia and the world students will enter when they graduate. It requires someone who is equally at ease presenting to students, the College’s trustees, and a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And, the director must be an “orchestrator of opportunity”, who leverages institutional relationships for the benefit of students. Leadership and an entrepreneurial spirit are critical.

Typical job descriptions have a brief summary of the position’s function, followed by sections for responsibilities and minimum qualifications. To attract good candidates, I recommend writing a new kind of description that answers the following questions:
1) Why does this position exist?
2) What are the expected results for the position?
3) Based on what metrics will success be determined?
4) With what departments, and with whom, will the position collaborate?
5) What is the organizational structure (both up and down)? Which positions are direct reports?
6) What are the key strategic functions?
7) What operational tasks will the incumbent perform herself?
8) What functions does this position oversee?
9) What percentage of the time will the incumbent devote to strategic, operational, and management functions?
10) What special needs or opportunities exist?

Candidates should be cognizant of what knowledge, skills and abilities are required. Rather than putting very high educational/experience requirements on the position, however, I recommend giving candidates the opportunity to truly understand the position and explain in a cover letter how their background and experience qualifies them to do a stellar job. It is incumbent upon hiring managers to carefully check references –and not just those references initially provided by the candidate.

There are talented and diverse candidates who could be exceptional career directors, but we have to get away from thinking that the only path to the position is through a master’s program and prior employment in a career services office. We must keep an open mind about applicants with different backgrounds, recognizing that few candidates will possess the ability to walk on water. Regardless of background, the new director will likely need support and coaching for success.

A Model for College Grad Career Success in 2012

In 2008, Brittany Haas left college with a newly minted degree in Apparel Design. A few months later, the stock market took a nose dive, leading to years of double-digit unemployment for young college grads. Hit worst have been those with degrees in art and design and liberal arts. But this is not another story of doom and gloom. At age 24, Brittany is US Retail Planner for a world-renowned fashion house, managing a multi-million dollar budget—along with her own business.

So how did the youngest daughter of four, who grew up on Long Island without any connection to the fashion industry, come so far, so fast? Brittany’s story is a model for any student who wants to find meaningful work in a tough economic environment; unwittingly, she followed the five smartest moves identified in Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career.

1) Figure out who you are and where you want to go

2) Get experience

3) Build social and networking relationships

4) Identify your competence gaps

5) Find your hook

Figure out who you are and where you want to go

From an early age, Brittany was good at math and science. But she also had a strong creative side. In high school, dancing was usually Brittany’s activity of choice, and she often spent six hours a day in class or at practice. But at 16, Brittany attended the Pre-College program at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and fell in love with fashion. So, when it came to applying to college, RISD was a natural first choice. Brittany was devastated when RISD quickly rejected her application, telling her that her portfolio did not meet the requisite standard. Fortunately, Brittany had a Plan B: the Cornell University College of Human Ecology, where Brittany could study Fiber Science Apparel Design along with a huge dose of liberal arts. It was a blessing in disguise: in-state tuition, an education that combined rigor with practicality, and an Ivy-League degree. Brittany relished the academic work, taking eighteen credits per semester, instead of the required twelve. She also had an active social life and joined a sorority.

Get Experience

Brittany knew the key to her success in the fashion world would hinge on understanding the way the industry worked. And, from the time she entered college, both her parents and professors encouraged her to get internships. Brittany found all her internships using a very low-tech approach: she simply wrote personalized emails to sixty companies for whom she wanted to work. The first year Brittany received very few responses, but as her experience grew, so did the response rate. Brittany’s first internship was with the Israeli designer, Yigal Azrouel. It was unpaid and very low level, and she recalls hating it. But, in retrospect, Brittany was grateful for the opportunity to observe all aspects of a small company.

The first paid internship came the following summer, when Brittany worked for bridal boutique, Kleinfeld. This time, Brittany chose her internship specifically to gain experience in marketing. Finally, during the summer after junior year, Brittany found an internship as assistant manager at Nordstrom, which she describes as a “real job”. It gave her great experience on the retail floor, while paying her an excellent salary. To gain additional funds, Brittany also waitressed during the summer—often for four days a week.

Going to the career fair in her senior year, Brittany was an attractive candidate to the few retailers who came to campus. After two on-campus interviews, a retail math test, and a “Super Friday” at the company site, Brittany went to work for Ralph Lauren. Since then she has learned the department store side of the business by working for Saks Fifth Avenue, and started her third full-time post-graduation job in retail planning at Hermes. Asked whether Brittany is concerned that she is now totally on the business side of fashion, she replies that she takes care of her creative side by also running her own business, SomethingBorrowedNY, which rents out designer bridal accessories.

Build Social and Networking Relationships

Much of Brittany’s success can be traced to her uncanny ability to form relationships. Even so, she recalls that networking did not initially come easily to her, and she had to force herself to make the effort. If her business was to be successful, Brittany knew she had to find ways to get advice and publicity, so she started going to networking events in New York City. Organizations like Error! Hyperlink reference not valid., Women 2.0, the NY Entrepreneurs Business Network, and General Assembly, have been particularly helpful. At first, Brittany attended events with a friend and business partner, a strategy that made it easier to play off each other’s comments while discussing their new business with strangers. But, after a few years of meeting large numbers of people and talking about what she does, Brittany is now a networking pro.

Social media also plays a big part in Brittany’s life. In common with many small businesses, SomethingBorrowedNY grows through frequent use of blogging, and the effective use of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Brittany reports that LinkedIn is also by far the best way of finding work in the business side of fashion—at least once you have experience. No longer does she have to seek work; now, companies and headhunters look for people like Brittany on LinkedIn.

Identify Your Competence Gaps

From the time she entered Cornell, Brittany was intent on entering the fashion world, and made decisions about academics and work experience based on what she would be able to learn. She had an interest in business, but believed she could learn those skills on the job. So, when given the option of majoring in Fashion Design Management or Apparel Design, Brittany chose the latter. She wanted to understand fabrics and garment construction—something it would be hard to do simply from working in the business. Brittany selected internships based on her desire to see all sides of fashion—from design, to planning, to retail. The variety of these experiences allowed her to relate much more effectively to potential employers. It didn’t hurt, of course, that one of those prospective employers was a Cornell grad and sorority sister.

Find Your Hook

Brittany doesn’t have one hook; she has dozens. They include:

* A work ethic second to none: she usually works from 9am to 6pm at Hermes, and from 7pm to 11pm on SomethingBorrowedNY.

* A clear focus on fashion, with an understanding of both design and business.

* Excellent math skills and a good knowledge of French—a real plus for her semi-annual business trips to Paris.

* An entrepreneurial spirit combined with the ability to get things done.

* A winning personality and unusual maturity.
None of these “hooks” are extraordinary, but few candidates possess them all. In Brittany’s case, she simply took advantage of her natural aptitudes and interests.

For most college students and grads, finding or pursuing a career in 2012 will not be easy. But it can be done. In this economic environment it pays to focus, devote the requisite time for the job search, and persevere.

Advice for the Parents of Liberal Arts Freshmen

When students return to college, or set foot on campus for the first time, it’s normal for parents to have conflicting emotions. One of those emotions is frequently anxiety about the cost of education and the value of that education in the real world. But such concerns are likely to be brushed away by the assumption that as long as their sons and daughters take it easy on the partying and pay attention to their studies, they’ll be rewarded with a good job at graduation. At a time when the unemployment rate for recent bachelor’s grads is at an all-time high (13.1%) it’s essential to question this assumption. The path from college to a good career is not automatic; it takes considerable work on the student’s part, starting early in their time at college. Follow the ten lessons below and today’s college students will not only be better prepared for life after college; they will also gain maximum advantage and enjoyment from their education.

  • A college education happens everywhere—in the classroom, through extracurricular activities, on the athletic field, through internships and beyond. Learning outside, as well as inside, the classroom may prove to be more important to your career than the subject of your degree. Take responsibility for, and engage with all aspects of your education. It will make your college experience more meaningful and it will be helpful to your career.
  • When you matriculate at a college, you’re not expected to know what you want to do after you leave that college. Abandon preconceived notions of acceptable career directions. Make the decision yours—not your parents, nor your peers! To explore potential avenues of interest, take advantage of opportunities such as becoming a leader of a campus group or doing research with faculty, and weigh the value of internships versus other summer options.
  • Recognize that confusion and discomfort is not only normal, it’s expected and it’s a good thing. Give yourself permission to not be perfect. Allow yourself to fail. But make sure you learn from failure. You can recover from a “D”. Colleges typically have many resources available to students. Taking early advantage of the academic advising and academic resource centers, for example, can get you back on track and help you make the most of your education.
  • Don’t choose your major too early, or decide on a major because you think you need it for a particular career. (You may not!) While you should be strategic about choosing some of your early courses if you’re leaning in a particular direction (e.g., economics, biology, pre-health, public policy), it’s much more important to study what you love than to follow a path that may be more common but doesn’t interest you. For most students, the subject matter of your degree will not determine your career. Most careers can be pursued with any major. Resist the temptation to build academic credentials at the expense of exploring new horizons. And do not double major for the sake of a credential. Few employers believe double-majoring confers a career advantage.
  • A high GPA may be necessary for a good graduate school, professional school or fellowships/scholarships, but a very high GPA is not essential for most positions and employers rarely consider GPA for second jobs. Students with a stellar academic record aren’t necessarily the best candidates for employment. Employers want to see transferable skills, which can be drawn from any part of your education.
  • Further education can be a great idea, but may not be as necessary as you think. Only go to graduate school or professional school if you are convinced you need that type of education for what you want to do. Increasingly students are working for a while before going on to further education, providing the opportunity to consider the value and need for graduate and professional school.
  • Study abroad can be very helpful to your career. But it can only give you a real career advantage if you step outside your comfort zone and learn skills like linguistic fluency, cross-cultural competency, flexibility, resilience, and decision making/problem solving. Avoid having an American experience abroad, rather than a true international experience. It is through different and difficult experiences that you are most likely to find answers to one of the most important career questions “Who are you and what do you want to do with your life?”.
  • You’re missing the boat if you don’t build relationships with faculty, staff and advisors early, and throughout your time at college: they can be your biggest allies and guides.
  • Define success for yourself, even if it means you’ll be temporarily unemployed at graduation and won’t be making the highest salary. Being employed at graduation has more to do with the type of employer you seek than with your value to the work world. Most employers of college grads do “just in time” hiring, so that you can only be hired when an employee has left. Prepare for the job search while at college, but recognize the actual application process may happen after finals.
  • Careers don’t happen over night: they take time. Build a partnership with counselors in your Career Center and with other trusted advisors, so that you learn the realities of life after graduation, and understand how you can best prepare yourself through education for life.

Colleges Need New Approaches to Career Preparation

Too many of our new graduates are not getting jobs—or at least the kind of jobs that put them on a career path and provide sufficient compensation to pay back loans.

For three years, high unemployment rates have plagued some of our most talented young people. Colleges cannot change the economy or force companies to hire. But they can do a better job preparing their students to compete for available positions.

Colleges need to invest in their career services. But just doing more of the same won’t be enough. They must embrace a much more holistic vision of careers, with clear responsibilities for both student and institution.

Three strategies will help:

1) Clarify how students need to contribute to their own career success. Many students seem to think that their job is over when they decide to matriculate at a particular college; all they need to do after that is get good grades and a lucrative job will follow. Colleges need to clearly articulate from the freshman year on what students must do while they are in college to be competitive in the work world.

2) Identify the skills and characteristics required for post-graduate success—and help students develop them. The availability of a searchable database of hundreds of alumni profiles can help students better understand the connection between college and career. Students will learn more from reading about alumni experiences—especially when an alum graduated in a recession—than they will from any administration exhortations not to panic. With this kind of resource, students will likely see the need to make better use of Study Abroad and internship opportunities.

3) Develop a career community. Parents have a vested interest in the employment of their sons and daughters. Many alumni, and friends of an institution, also care deeply about graduate outcomes. Establishing a group of individuals who are willing to give career advice and assistance provides an excellent supplement to the work of on-site career professionals. At the same time, these volunteers expand both the career knowledge and opportunity base available to students and graduates.

Good jobs for college graduates do exist, but we need to do a much better job of preparing students to be competitive job applicants. And, we need to make sure that students are as invested in their own success as the schools they attend.

Alumni Unemployment Demands New College Solutions

Graduation used to mark the end of a college’s responsibility to its students. But many institutions have come to realize that they need to pay attention to their graduates—however long they’ve been out of school. Nowhere is there more pressure than in the area of career services, judged by alumni as one of the key areas where they need help.

There are compelling reasons for colleges to respond to alumni needs: When graduates can’t find jobs, get laid off, or fail to find even the bottom rung of the career ladder, their misfortune now directly affects the colleges they attended.

Families want assurances that a college’s alumni have successful careers. No longer is the matriculation decision based solely on the strength of a college’s academic program, or the student’s interest in a particular college. Families want to know that if their sons or daughters matriculate, they will find good work after graduation. Vague references in the college View Book may have sufficed in the past; now, real data is needed to prove a college can deliver on its employment promise.

Layoffs and parental unemployment affect the ability of students to afford a college education and stay in school once they have matriculated. But, student retention is also influenced by what happens to recent graduates. When underclass students see the difficulties college seniors face in finding work, they are less inclined to want to remain a student and accumulate more debt. Having a vision of a successful future may be critical to persistence.

Alumni involvement and philanthropy Unemployed alumni are less likely to want to be involved with their alma mater: it’s human nature to want to share successes but hide misfortune. This is a problem for colleges because research has shown that the more involved alumni become with their institutions, the more likely they are to eventually become donors. Unemployed alumni have other priorities for their savings.

Graduate unemployment clearly cannot be ignored. Indeed, the future of many colleges may depend on finding additional ways to meet the needs of alumni—regardless of their employment status. Babson College in Boston provides a good example of innovative thinking: the College has made it possible for many alumni who previously held high-level positions to occupy office space on campus, and occasionally teach—building a sense of goodwill towards the College that will last far beyond the period of alumni unemployment.

The college that thinks creatively in this period of high unemployment, and invests in services and activities that better prepare graduates for the future, is the one that will not only survive, but thrive.


Shifting Demographics Change College Employment Outlook

According to the June 2011, report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the unemployment rate for young graduates with bachelor’s degrees was a staggering 12%–substantially higher than for any other graduate cohort. But, as most college careers offices and development offices can tell you, the recent recession has also adversely affected large numbers of their alumni. The term “jobless recovery” is apt.

The statistics tell a troubling story for anyone hoping for a quick turnaround in career prospects. There are clear reasons for pessimism:

Seniors are not retiring
 Those within ten years of retirement at the time of the economic crash of 2008, are likely to have had a significant set-back in retirement assets—even if they were brave enough to stay invested when the market dropped. The impact of this reality can be seen in the 22% increase in those bachelor’s degree grads aged over 65 who have chosen to be in the labor force since 2008. Almost 200,000 more people in this age group were employed in 2011 than were employed just three years earlier. Two thirds of this growth can be explained by the increased population of older college grads; the remainder are directly attributable to seniors working longer.

Baby-boomers have been particularly hard hit by the recession 
The group that probably feels the most pressure to increase retirement savings are those in the 55-64 year old cohort. Unfortunately, they are the ones most affected by their older peers hanging on to employment. The baby-boomer bubble has exacerbated the situation. Between 2008 and 2011, there was an 18% increase in the 55-64 year old cohort, leading to the worst increase in unemployment rates of any age group of bachelor’s degree graduates. In June, 2008, their unemployment rate was 2.9%. Three years later it was 6.5%–a 124% increase. Once laid off, it is particularly difficult for those over 55 to find new work.

There is significant pent-up demand for employment
 In June, 2011, there were 900,000 more bachelor’s degree graduates who wanted, but could not find, work than three years earlier. Adding hundreds of thousands of jobs that require post-secondary education is likely to take years.

The employment situation of older graduates should also be a concern to anyone who is invested in the success of educated young people.

When seniors do not retire, it causes stresses on every other group in the workforce. Those who are employed find fewer promotions; salaries are depressed; and, employees at all levels face difficulties obtaining suitable employment.

For those on the bottom rung of the career ladder, the poor economic climate may mean accepting a position that does not require a college degree—a reality that few are willing to accept.

Note: All statistics come from BLS Table 10 (unpublished). Future blog posts will discuss how the employment crisis for young college graduates can be alleviated, and what role students and their colleges will need to play to ensure their employability.

Employment Elusive for 2011 College Grads

The government’s June statistics contained an unpleasant surprise for the Class of 2011: a ten percent rise in the unemployment rate compared to June, 2010. Twelve percent of college graduates under the age of 25 had no work at all in June, 2011—not even a part-time or low-level job.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. After two years of unemployment rates above ten percent, there were signs of improved prospects for college seniors. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reported in March that 53% of employers planned to hire more college seniors from the Class of 2011 than the Class of 2010. And, colleges across the country attested to increased participation from employers in fall career fairs.

But, the anticipated uptick in employment appears to have fizzled. A NACE student survey completed in May, 2011, showed that while close to half of those who applied for positions received a job offer, only 24% of respondents had actually accepted a job by graduation. No improvement over last year.

It is likely that those who did not accept their job offers are looking for more relevant and lucrative opportunities. But, many of those students holding out for a better offer are likely to be disappointed. They will have strong competition from those who graduated two years ago and still have not found a career path.

An unemployment rate of 12%–for any group of college graduates–is unprecedented in recent memory. And, the rate is likely to stay high unless there is a massive increase in job creation. Here’s why:

More young people are graduating with bachelor’s degrees
 Between June, 2008 and June, 2011, the number of college grads aged 20-24 grew by 66,000.

More young graduates want to work 
Typically, around 80% of bachelor’s degree grads aged 20-24 participate in the labor force, with the remainder attending graduate school, or taking time to pursue other non-work activities. Between 2008 and 2011, however, there was a 5% increase in young graduates who were either working or looking for work. That means over 100,000 were competing for essentially the same number of jobs as in 2008.

Fewer young graduates are going immediately to graduate school
 Given increased participation in the work force, it appears that younger grads are putting off graduate school, or choosing not to go at all. This is likely in response to high debt loads and an uncertain employment market.

Without intervention, high unemployment of new college graduates is likely to be the norm for the foreseeable future. If we want young people to capitalize on their education, pay back their considerable loans, and make meaningful contributions to society, it is incumbent on educational institutions, employers and the government to work together to find new solutions. Without new approaches, Barack Obama’s efforts to increase the number of college graduates will backfire.

Note: All statistics are from BLS, Table 10 (unpublished). Future blog posts will discuss how the employment crisis for young college graduates can be alleviated, and what role students and their colleges will need to play to ensure their employability.

Shifting Demographics Change College Employment Outlook

According to the June 2011, report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the unemployment rate for young graduates with bachelor’s degrees was a staggering 12%–substantially higher than for any other graduate cohort. But, as most college careers offices and development offices can tell you, the recent recession has also adversely affected large numbers of their alumni. The term “jobless recovery” is apt.

The statistics tell a troubling story for anyone hoping for a quick turnaround in career prospects. There are clear reasons for pessimism. When students return to college, or set foot on campus for the first time, it’s normal for parents to have conflicting emotions. One of those emotions is frequently anxiety about the cost of education and the value of that education in the real world. But such concerns are likely to be brushed away by the assumption that as long as their sons and daughters take it easy on the partying and pay attention to their studies, they’ll be rewarded with a good job at graduation.

At a time when the unemployment rate for recent bachelor’s grads is at an all-time high (13.1%) it’s essential to question this assumption. The path from college to a good career is not automatic; it takes considerable work on the student’s part, starting early in their time at college. Follow the ten lessons below and today’s college students will not only be better prepared for life after college; they will also gain maximum advantage and enjoyment from their education.

• A college education happens everywhere—in the classroom, through extracurricular activities, on the athletic field, through internships and beyond. Learning outside, as well as inside, the classroom may prove to be more important to your career than the subject of your degree. Take responsibility for, and engage with all aspects of your education. It will make your college experience more meaningful and it will be helpful to your career.

• When you matriculate at a college, you’re not expected to know what you want to do after you leave that college. Abandon preconceived notions of acceptable career directions. Make the decision yours—not your parents, nor your peers! To explore potential avenues of interest, take advantage of opportunities such as becoming a leader of a campus group or doing research with faculty, and weigh the value of internships versus other summer options.

• Recognize that confusion and discomfort is not only normal, it’s expected and it’s a good thing. Give yourself permission to not be perfect. Allow yourself to fail. But make sure you learn from failure. You can recover from a “D”. Colleges typically have many resources available to students. Taking early advantage of the academic advising and academic resource centers, for example, can get you back on track and help you make the most of your education.

• Don’t choose your major too early, or decide on a major because you think you need it for a particular career. (You may not!) While you should be strategic about choosing some of your early courses if you’re leaning in a particular direction (e.g., economics, biology, pre-health, public policy), it’s much more important to study what you love than to follow a path that may be more common but doesn’t interest you. For most students, the subject matter of your degree will not determine your career. Most careers can be pursued with any major. Resist the temptation to build academic credentials at the expense of exploring new horizons. And do not double major for the sake of a credential. Few employers believe double-majoring confers a career advantage.

• A high GPA may be necessary for a good graduate school, professional school or fellowships/scholarships, but a very high GPA is not essential for most positions and employers rarely consider GPA for second jobs. Students with a stellar academic record aren’t necessarily the best candidates for employment. Employers want to see transferable skills, which can be drawn from any part of your education.

• Further education can be a great idea, but may not be as necessary as you think. Only go to graduate school or professional school if you are convinced you need that type of education for what you want to do. Increasingly students are working for a while before going on to further education, providing the opportunity to consider the value and need for graduate and professional school.

• Study abroad can be very helpful to your career. But it can only give you a real career advantage if you step outside your comfort zone and learn skills like linguistic fluency, cross-cultural competency, flexibility, resilience, and decision making/problem solving. Avoid having an American experience abroad, rather than a true international experience. It is through different and difficult experiences that you are most likely to find answers to one of the most important career questions “Who are you and what do you want to do with your life?”.

• You’re missing the boat if you don’t build relationships with faculty, staff and advisors early, and throughout your time at college: they can be your biggest allies and guides

• Define success for yourself, even if it means you’ll be temporarily unemployed at graduation and won’t be making the highest salary. Being employed at graduation has more to do with the type of employer you seek than with your value to the work world. Most employers of college grads do “just in time” hiring, so that you can only be hired when an employee has left. Prepare for the job search while at college, but recognize the actual application process may happen after finals.

• Careers don’t happen over night: they take time. Build a partnership with counselors in your Career Center and with other trusted advisors, so that you learn the realities of life after graduation, and understand how you can best prepare yourself through education for life.

A Liberal Arts Education: Not Only Relevant, but Critical to Career Success

When the employment situation is bleak, thousands of students gravitate towards subjects like business, communications, or economics, turning their backs on liberal arts subjects. Many do so because they perceive it to be the safest way to avoid unemployment at graduation. Few have made the case to students that the pursuit of a broad academic education may be a more effective strategy to achieve the desired result. So it was with great interest that I read a discussion of this topic on my alma mater’s LinkedIn site (Durham University Alumni). The specific question asked was how graduates used subjects like history, science or languages in their day-to-day work.

I found one answer particularly helpful, because it clearly articulated how the author’s knowledge of multiple subjects influenced his success in writing and designing video games. Graeme Davis moved into the games industry after graduating with a degree in archeology. This is an edited version of Graeme’s account, describing how he has used his educational background:

Math: Math is a good grounding for anything computer-ish, but as a game designer rather than a programmer I still found algebra and probability indispensible in designing statistical systems for games. The state of the art in game design is getting more technical with every year that passes, making these even more important. On the soft-skill side, any mathematical subject (and I’d include physics there) teaches the kind of organized thinking that is vital for game development. It also gives me at least a chance of understanding what the programmers on my projects are talking about – sometimes it can sound like Martian to me – and good communication between disciplines (design, programming, art) is vital on a big, expensive project like an AAA video game!

English: Writing is at the core of what I do, so much so that I now call myself a game writer with design experience rather than a game writer/designer. I despised English literature when I was in high school, arrogantly thinking that I wanted to be a writer, not to obsess over the work of other writers. I was young and foolish, what can I say? I have come to recognize that as with painters, one’s own technique and understanding of the medium is immeasurably enhanced by studying the work of the masters. Story is a huge part of what makes a good game into a great game, and there is a surprising amount of dialogue and narration in most games – I’ve heard 60 hours (that’s 20-30 Hollywood movies’ worth) in a top-line MMORPG like World of Warcraft.

History: I came to history later in life, but quite apart from the work I’ve done on historical games (like the BAFTA-winning Total War strategy game series) it’s been tremendously important for doing things like creating fantasy settings for games. Understand how history and mythology work, and you can create fake histories and mythologies that ring true. Tolkien couldn’t have created The Lord of the Rings without his academic background in Anglo-Saxon literature. Oh, and enough Latin stuck with me that I was the go-to guy for fake-Latin Space Marine mottos in Warhammer 40,000, during my four years at Games Workshop.

Modern Languages: I studied French and German. They’ve come in handy on trips, such as the handful of visits I made to Paris for a project with Ubisoft. And as with history and mythology, an understanding of how languages work helps you construct fake ones for a fantasy game. For example, when I was writing for Warhammer Fantasy products, I twisted Welsh and Gaelic words for the Elven languages, while the Dwarf tongue was based on slightly mangled words from Scandinavian languages.

Geography: Like history, geography has come in useful in creating fantasy worlds. Knowing how landforms, climates, and so on all work helps create a more convincing world.

Biology: Once again, knowing about basic processes, anatomy, and ecology in this world helps create others that ring true.

Archeology: Fantasy worlds tend to be at a medieval level of technology, often with iron-age or dark-age barbarians nibbling at their frontiers. I’ve also written historical sourcebooks (Vikings, iron-age Celts, Rome, medieval England, and most recently the Thirteen Colonies up to the Revolutionary War) for Dungeons & Dragons and similar games.”

Most students have a very narrow frame of reference when it comes to careers. And, their parents often reinforce the myth that your major dictates how you will ultimately earn your living. Too often, relatives who hear that a student is majoring in history, philosophy or English will ask “what are you going to do with that”, reinforcing the idea that a liberal arts degree is a fast path to unemployment. What students need to hear are stories of graduates, like Graeme Davis, whose education, inside and outside the classroom, has enabled him to follow his passion. The examples of these graduates will inspire students to make informed educational decisions, rather than following the crowd. And faculty may find a few more students in their archeology classes.

2011 College Grads Still Face Uphill Employment Battle

High school seniors who matriculated at four-year colleges in 2007 have seen the best and worst of economic times during their time in school. As they prepare to graduate, many must be thanking fate for the positive developments currently emerging in the employment market.

There is cause for optimism. Employers are returning to career fairs, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall unemployment rate for college grads over the age of 25 has decreased from a high of 5.3% in July, 2009 to a seasonally non-adjusted rate of 4.5% in January, 2011.

But economic gains have, so far, not benefitted new college grads, whose unemployment rate in January stood at a decades-high 10.8%. Contrary to all other groups, bachelor’s degree holders aged 20-24 experienced a 17% increase in their rate of unemployment between January, 2010, and January, 2011. And, over the past three years, that unemployment rate has almost doubled.

Three years ago, 116,000 of these young college grads were unemployed. Now, close to a quarter of a million find themselves without jobs. Many of those who do have jobs are underemployed and living back home with their parents.

A significant proportion of students attend college in pursuit of a better standard of living, commensurate with their investment in higher education. For those graduates who are unemployed or underemployed, college loan repayments are a cruel reminder of unfulfilled expectations.

As employers start to add more jobs, current students must prepare themselves to be compelling candidates, so that they avoid the unemployment/underemployment trap. Four strategies will help:

1) Take advantage of internships and co-ops. One reason why employers choose older college grads over their younger peers is because of their proven work experience. Students need to be able to articulate their relevant or transferable skills, even if they have not held full-time positions.

2) Go the extra mile. The passive approach no longer works, and that includes applying indiscriminately to every job on Craig’s List. Searching out employers of interest, reading up on company developments, and mining alumni databases to find points of connection to the organization, are all examples of the kind of proactive approach that is required.

3) Use your Career Center. Students who use their school’s career services office will typically find jobs more quickly than their peers. Yet, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, advising appointments at Career Centers nationally have gone down, not up. Career Centers cannot, or course, manufacture jobs, but they can help students position themselves more effectively with employers.

4) Make your career search a priority. No amount of advice can help you achieve your career goals unless you are willing to devote the considerable time it takes to conduct an effective job search.

There are jobs out there for new grads–and many lie unfilled because new college grads cannot make the case for their own employment. Parents, educators and career professionals have a vested interest and a moral obligation to help them do so.

College Loans Should Come with a Uniform Warning Label

In the next few months, hundreds of thousands of high school seniors will be deciding where to go to college. They’ve read the viewbooks, checked out the campus, and made sure they could major in a chosen subject. And, they’ve considered whether they will receive sufficient financial aid to attend.

What prospective students rarely do, however, is question whether a degree from a particular college is likely to lead to a lucrative job after graduation. How many prospective applicants press the careers office for information on employment or salaries? How many ask what it will take for them to be employed at graduation?

For the student applying for significant loans, the challenge of finding a well-paying job should be a cause for serious worry. The Department of Education estimates that in 2009, only 56% of students at private non-profit colleges were in repayment of their student loans four years after they graduated or left school. That figure dips to 54% for students at public non-profit institutions and plummets to 36% for students at for-profit colleges.

The reality of graduates struggling with debt is in sharp contrast to their expectations as students. According to the latest national survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, 72.7% of 2011 freshmen largely agreed that the chief benefit of college is increased earning power.

Sadly, the Department of Education data suggests that many entry-level graduate salaries, for those lucky enough to find a job, are insufficient to maintain an adequate standard of living while repaying debts. The unemployment rate in January, 2011, for those with bachelors degrees aged 20-24, stood at 10.8%. Graduates in this cohort who do have jobs may be either working part-time or underemployed, further exacerbating their financial situation.

Students who are considering taking on high amounts of debt must understand what that debt will mean for their lives after graduation. Colleges and universities have a clear responsibility to not only publish the career and salary outcomes for their graduates, but also to identify the time and effort required for a successful career search.

Perhaps it is time to put a warning label on every college loan that says: “This college loan may adversely affect your financial health. A college degree does not guarantee that you will receive a post-graduate job with a salary sufficient to repay your loans. Further, your debts cannot be discharged through bankruptcy.”

Increasing the number of Americans with a college education, and making loans available to more students are worthy goals. But, when students are able to take out loans with insufficient consideration of the consequences, it bodes well for no one–least of all, the debt-ridden college graduate.

Improving Employment Market Leaves New College Grads Out in the Cold

There are numerous indications that the overall job market is improving. According to, a company that tracks job postings nationwide, 2010 saw an 88% overall uptick in listings over 2009. Some fields fared better than others: after significant declines in recent years, information technology listings in 2010 were up by 82% over 2009, and listings in the media rose by a similar percentage. Over 700,000 positions were advertised in health care in 2010. This positive trend is likely to continue in 2011. Michigan State’s Recruiting Trends, 2010-11 reports that employers of bachelors’ degree grads predict 10% more hiring this year.

But the good news in some quarters is tempered by troubling unemployment statistics for new college graduates. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that while the increase in job opportunities has led to a flattening or slight decline in unemployment rates for most job seekers, the unemployment rate for new bachelors’ degree grads jumped from 7.9% in December, 2009 to 9.6% in December, 2010. Getting onto the career ladder has never been harder for this group.

It would be natural to assume that college careers offices would be overwhelmed by demand from anxious students. Yet, according to the NACE 2009-10 Career Services Benchmark Survey, 25% fewer students sought help than in the previous year. Even as loan repayment dates loom, many young people are placing all their faith in a better economy, without acknowledging the pent up demand for jobs from their slightly more advanced peers.

It may be difficult to find the perfect job, but it is by no means impossible. The 90.4% of employed college grads under 25 clearly did something right. What separates many employed graduates from their peers is the following:

  • They used all the resources at their disposal–including career centers, faculty, alumni, and relatives. And, they committed to putting in the time and energy required for a successful job search.
  • They explained what work they wanted to do with passion and thoughtfulness to anyone who would listen, and asked for advice and help. Many of them leaned on mentors and learned from their wisdom. Then they took action.
  • They made sure employers did not have easy reasons to reject them. Their resumes were well formatted without errors, and their communications were professional.
  • They were able, both in writing and in person, to communicate how they could add value to an employer. And, they were able to point to examples of success and competence. They modified their communications based on their company research and the job description of the open position.
  • They paid attention to the “gatekeepers” in human resources and in reception areas, treating them with respect.
  • They went beyond the usual job boards to seek out opportunities on employer websites. They mined LinkedIn to get insider information on company expectations and culture.
  • They built an online presence, through a personal website, blog, or social media, so that potential employers could find them.
  • They did not apply for any position for which they could not summon the energy to write a personal cover letter or do company research.
  • They started preparing for the job search long before they submitted their first application, building skills and experience that they knew would be useful.
  • They never took rejection personally, or used it as an excuse to give up the job search.

More Jobs, Higher Unemployment: A Confusing Message for the Class of 2010

The Class of 2010 has graduated into the worst economy in living memory. Those with bachelor’s degrees are joining their under-25 peers in a job market where 11.7% of their cohort is unemployed. And, while other segments of the market recover, the situation for recent graduates is deteriorating. In July 2009, the unemployment rate for college graduates with bachelor’s degrees was 10.1%. A year later, it is 15% higher. Those who chose to “ride out the economy” when the job market first slipped, made a serious error in judgment.

There is no doubt that it is hard for college graduates to find work. But dig deeper in the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, and the news is less gloomy. More that a 100,000 more college graduates are employed in July, 2010 than were employed two years ago.

Two factors play into this seemingly contradictory situation. The first is that over a two-year period, there has been a 3.6% increase in the total number of people with bachelor’s degree qualifications under the age of 25. The second is that the percentage of graduates who are participating in the workforce (either employed or actively looking for work) has jumped from 82% to 86%.

Here’s the bottom line: there are more jobs out there, but there are more young graduates chasing them. Never has it been more important for these job applicants to focus on what they want, identify where they can provide value to an employer and develop a strategy to get their foot in the door. The future of these young graduates depends on it.

Careers and College Debt: Don’t Blame the Parents

There is no doubt that today’s college graduates often leave school owing more money than they can easily repay. Writing in The New York Times on May 28, 2010, Ron Lieber puts the blame on higher education, banks and families. Many families have, indeed, been loath to put the brakes on excessive borrowing for college, but I believe Mr. Lieber’s finger pointing at parents misses a very important point.

Parents allow, and even encourage, their children to borrow for college, because they believe higher education provides an economic return on investment in the form of a well-paid job. The better the school (so parents think), the more likely the student will access the path to prosperity. Small wonder that the parent profiled by Mr. Lieber supported her daughter’s desire to attend NYU, even if it meant borrowing many thousands of dollars. Numerous ranking systems are testament to the perceived value of a particular school.

Probe the prosperity assumption just a little, however, and it rapidly disintegrates. Top schools often have access to prestigious employers, and robust alumni networks. But that doesn’t mean there are enough highly paid jobs available for all students with debts to discharge. Nor does it mean students will be qualified for those jobs—or even want them. And, alumni networks do no good if the student has no idea how to engage with adults around career issues.

A poor economic climate favors graduates with pre-professional degrees and directly related internship experience. But who is telling that to parents who would do anything to have their son attend an Ivy League school? And who is telling students that they don’t need a $200,000 education to become a Fortune 100 CEO?

Students from all schools–but particularly liberal arts majors from top colleges–need good career advice that is based on real world, not ivory tower, knowledge. Unfortunately, the media is complicit with colleges in perpetuating the erroneous belief that all it takes is a good education to secure a lucrative job at graduation.

Surveys conducted by consulting companies like Eduventures clearly demonstrate the importance of career preparation to the prospective college parent and student. Yet few colleges provide the kind of data that would support an informed college choice. Small wonder: gathering data costs time and money. And, schools have typically not invested in providing the kind of career services that would enable students to transition easily from college to career. The truth about the job situation for most new grads from top schools is not nearly as positive as most parents believe.

Parents might assume that in a down economy, colleges and universities would pay extra attention to the offices charged with helping graduates succeed outside the academic bubble. Not so. In the past year, most college career services have been hurt as badly as other administrative offices. In a recent benchmarking survey of sixteen college and university careers offices, conducted by Curran Career Consulting, only two escaped last year’s budget axe—and neither of those received an increase in funds. Most parents would be appalled to know that the annual amount of money spent per student on career services is often less than the cost of a couple of gourmet restaurant meals.

Parents and students need the facts about career preparation before they choose a school and sign the loan forms. In the next blog post, I will suggest a number of questions parents should ask colleges and universities before making a matriculation decision. Only with this information can a parent or student definitively say the risk of debt is worth the post-graduate reward.

Careers and the College Grad: Predictions for 2010 and Beyond

December 31, 2009: The Wall Street Journal’s lead story proclaims that 2009 was a banner year for stocks. This is great news for parents paying for their children’s increasingly expensive college education from hard-earned savings. Yet the good economic news disguises an ugly fact: unemployment figures continued to rise throughout 2009, only flattening out towards the end of the year. And, none of the experts expect a significant improvement in the employment picture anytime soon.

Based on my reading of the statistical tea leaves, along with anecdotal data from clients, I have five predictions each for college students, and for the career services offices that help them figure out and find their futures.

College students

1) For the foreseeable future, it will be a buyer’s market for employers, not new college graduates. You won’t be able to “ride out” the poor economy—whether you’re a senior or a freshman. Building a career focus and skills early in your college career will be key.

2) A good GPA and a good school will no longer guarantee a good job. You’ll need relevant internships or jobs to prove that you can do the work you say you’re qualified to do.

3) Liberal arts students who are not at the top of the class may get left behind in the employment game. The less your major relates to your career field of choice, the more relevant experience and effective career strategies you’ll need.

4) You won’t find your job sitting in front of a computer. Forget job boards—except to get a sense of the kinds of organizations that are hiring. Success will only come to those who find a way to use connections to get their foot in the door, and who know how to exploit social media.

5) Students will need professional career help. Few students have sufficient background or training to understand how to achieve career goals, and your first interview may be the one that really counts. Expert advice on career strategy and thinking like an employer will be essential.

College careers offices

1) The number of employers signing up for career fairs will increase in 2010—a welcome budget boost for cash-strapped careers offices. But the number of interns and new grads sought by employers will not significantly increase from last year.

2) Career services budgets will remain flat, or sustain even further cuts. The careers office that doesn’t change will become increasingly marginalized.

3) The careers office that identifies ways to provide better services at lower costs will be the one that gets the positive attention of senior university leadership.

4) More partnerships will be formed between the careers office and academic advising, alumni affairs, and enrollment management, reflecting the importance of graduate success to other parts of a college or university.

5) Careers offices with diminished staff will struggle to provide the breadth and depth of services required by students and alumni in a difficult economy. Success in meeting client needs will require a different approach to career volunteers, partnerships, and outsourcing.

Good News for College Grad Employment

The latest government (BLS) unemployment statistics for October, 2009, were accompanied by a collective national groan. Across all populations, the average unemployment rate rose to a high of 10.2%–up four tenths of a percent from September, 2009, and 54% higher than a year ago. But unemployment woes have not affected every group equally. There is a whopping discrepancy between individuals with no high school diploma, and those with a college degree.

The statistics tell a pretty clear story, and it’s all about education. According to the BLS data, if you don’t have strong educational qualifications, you’re more likely to be unemployed. Period. Those with no qualifications at all have a 14% unemployment rate, while those with a high school diploma are unemployed at the national average. On the other hand, college graduates over the age of 25, fare significantly better. Their overall unemployment rate is now a respectable 4.6%, a rate that is still historically high, but has been decreasing since July. There remains a glut of unemployed recent graduates, but older graduates have been finding jobs: 163,000 fewer college grads over the age of 25 were unemployed in October, 2009, than in the previous month.

While it’s easy to think that the recession may be over for experienced graduates, that may be an overstatement. Certainly, more of them have jobs, but what isn’t known is whether these jobs are full or part time, and whether they actually require the credential possessed by the applicant. A college degree does not guarantee work that is interesting and lucrative—and commensurate with the money you have spent to obtain the degree. But it does make it more likely that you can find some kind of employment, even when the economy is in trouble.

Higher Education: Don’t Ignore Your Liberal Arts Majors

In an Interfolio blog article on November 5, Mike Lovell makes the case that careers offices should pay more attention to their liberal arts majors. He cites a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Katharine Brooks. I applaud Ms. Brooks’ idea of partnering with faculty. I also like the idea of offering students a course through which they identify their transferable skills, whether through a credit or a not-for-credit program. But I’d like to go much further. In the 21st century, when an economic return on tuition investment is so important to both students and parents, it is incumbent upon everyone in a college or university—from the President on down—to be talking about education and graduate success in the same breath, and to do so from the first year on. Because if talking about a student’s future is confined to the upper-class classroom and the occasional visit to the careers office, we will still end up with graduates who can’t make the connection between college and career.

What liberal arts students need is universal support to explore different career fields; stories about alumni and how they found paths to work they love; a great deal of experiential education; and, strategies to make their education relevant to the hiring managers who are considering their applications for employment. Students can’t just jump from a college career course to a job. There is much work that needs to go on in between those two milestones, and it will take the collaboration of university administration as well as alumni, faculty and the careers office to make that happen.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities is engaged in a very interesting initiative called LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise), which “champions the value of a liberal education for economic creativity and democratic vitality”. Its Liberal Education Outcomes Report, produced in 2005, does a great job of identifying the intellectual and practical skills obtained through a good liberal arts education. Intuitively, it makes sense that a liberal education would promote quantitative and information literacy, but a student telling the employer that she has these skills is likely to be met with blank stares. We need a different language to help students communicate the value of their education to an employer, and we need to be honest: most employers of entry level graduates don’t really care about a student’s education (as long as he has the educational qualification they seek); they care about whether he can do the job the employer needs to have done, and to do so with very little training. With a pre-professional degree, it is clear what a graduate can do; a liberal arts grad has to work much harder to demonstrate that she has the knowledge and skills to do the job. Almost always, she will need to supplement her education with related work experience.

In Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads, a book I coauthored in 2006, we illustrated through the stories of 23 liberal arts grads that the education they received was often extremely useful—but only when they were well on in their career. And, of the top Fortune 100 CEOs, for whom undergraduate degree is known, 35% have degrees in the liberal arts. Clearly a liberal education has value in higher level positions. But what about the 2010 grad whose career aspiration does not coincide with the title of his degree? No amount of fancy language or learning outcomes are going to help him find employment in this market. In fact his liberal arts education may seem totally irrelevant. We need to make our new graduates feel comfortable with the fact that their liberal arts skills and knowledge will not be wasted. Almost certainly, liberal arts grads will find themselves utilizing their liberal arts knowledge and skill sets for decades into the future. But for now, higher education–not just the careers office– must help liberal arts majors simply find a job.

2009 College Graduates: Unemployed and Forgotten

What has happened to the college graduates who received their diplomas last Spring? Since that time, the word on the street—or at least on Wall Street—is that we are no longer in recession. But the improving public mood has not translated yet into hiring. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall unemployment rate inched up to 9.8% in September, with no demographic group being spared.

On the surface, the 9.3% unemployment rate for college grads with a bachelor’s degree under the age of 25 seems quite positive. After all, the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey of 16,000 college seniors, conducted through April 30, 2009, concluded that only 19.7% had jobs lined up by graduation. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics data hide some more troubling information. The employment numbers are higher than expected, because they include college graduates who did any work during the previous week—even if that work was part-time work while they were in graduate school, and even if the work did not require a college degree.

A better way of assessing the severity of the situation for recent grads is to compare employment data on 2009 graduates, to the same data, from the same month in 2008. The percentage of this cohort who are in the work force (employed or actively looking for work), is almost identical to a year ago, indicating that there was, in fact, no rush to graduate school. What is strikingly different is the change in both the number and the percentage of young college graduates seeking work compared to a year ago. The unemployment rate in September, 2008 for those with just a bachelor’s degree was 6.6%, compared to 9.3% a year later. In September, 2009, there were 202,000 young college graduates looking for work–54,000 more than in the same month last year. The situation is even worse for men. Their unemployment rate in September was 11%, compared to under 8% for women.

Peter Coy, who penned an article in Business Week on October 8, 2009, talks about the hazards of long term unemployment at the beginning of a career: “For people just starting their careers, the damage may be deep and long-lasting, potentially creating a kind of “lost generation.” Studies suggest that an extended period of youthful joblessness can significantly depress lifetime income as people get stuck in jobs that are beneath their capabilities, or come to be seen by employers as damaged goods.”

So who is helping the Class of 2009 find opportunities and contribute to the economic recovery? Many alumni associations and careers offices have started to provide more services to their constituents, but their efforts often fall short due to lack of appropriate staffing, time or budget to help those who have already left school. Given the increasing cost of education and the decreasing value of a college, higher education needs to take more responsibility for the success of its graduates. And that success has to start with a job. While the cost of providing alumni career services may seem steep, it is money well spent. A college graduate who is given assistance when he or she needs help, is the one who will keep giving back to a college through increased engagement and philanthropy.

Graduate unemployment is not just a problem to be solved by the Career Services office, or the Alumni Association. It’s an institution-wide issue. Now is the time for discussion and action at the highest level of college and university administration. The Class of 2009 needs immediate help.

Update for October, 2009: The unemployment rate for college grads aged 20-24 is heading downwards. There was a .4% drop in the unemployment rate from 9.3% to 8.9% from September to October. But the rate of unemployment is still almost 40% higher than in October a year ago.

Note: Essential employment data on higher education, college graduates and Career Services is updated every month on this website.

Management Coaching: A Strategic Investment for Colleges & Universities

When college and university revenues decline and budgets are slashed, training and development is frequently the first item on the chopping block. Not so in the Student Affairs division at Duke University. Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs, Caroline Nisbet, gave her staff the opportunity to decide where to cut. Nisbet quickly acceded to staff requests to keep professional development coaching in the budget, recognizing that the value of coaching reached far beyond the individuals concerned: The entire Student Affairs division benefited from the coaching her staff received.

Management coaching is a relatively new phenomenon in academia, but it has a long history in corporate America. According to a 2008 article in Fast Company, coaching is now a billion‐dollar industry, with a significant percentage of chief executive officers and senior executives taking advantage of coaching services.

What is good for corporate senior executives is just as good for leaders in academia. But the word “coaching” has too frequently been associated with performance deficiencies. Writing in the Harvard Management Update in January 2007, Lauren Keller Johnson acknowledged there used to be a stigma attached to coaching, but claims that the stigma has largely disappeared. She explains that “coaching is now used largely to expand a talented individual’s repertoire of skills, and working with a coach has even become something of a status symbol.”

Coaching Comes of Age in Academia

Academia may have been a “late adapter” of coaching, but that is about to change, thanks in part to an economic situation requiring significant modifications in how universities are managed.

As work forces contract, some managers are finding themselves in charge of areas with which they have little familiarity. Other individuals must demonstrate leadership and strategic planning skills they did not learn in graduate school. Staff layoffs are causing significant management challenges.

Many colleges and universities rely on time‐tested ways of doing business. In 2009, however, leaders need to think creatively about everything from doing more and better with less, to finding non‐financial means to reward and motivate staff members. No longer is it acceptable to say “we’ve always done it that way.” For many long‐time directors and vice presidents, the new order will create discomfort and uncertainty.

Coaching provides the opportunity to help managers adapt to very different work environments by employing their strengths in the most effective ways and building their capacities to move successfully into a new era. The strategic use of coaching can be particularly effective in student affairs given its culture of assessment. Now is the time to apply learning outcomes to staff as well as students.

What is Coaching?

The types of coaching most frequently used in the academic workplace fall into five categories: management, professional development, performance improvement, transition, and leadership development. Coaching is, by definition, holistic, and recognizes that factors outside of the work environment affect an individual’s
performance. As a result, coaches may employ many different types of coaching, including life coaching.

Stephanie Helms, director of assessment and professional development programs in student affairs at Duke University, speaks to the value of this holistic approach: “As people we are not compartmentalized. We don’t stop being parents, significant others, or caregivers when we arrive at the workplace.” She adds, “Having the opportunity to form a relationship with someone who is skilled at assisting with navigating each role, honing skills and defining success, cannot be underestimated.”

Though coaching styles and purpose may differ, any coaching assignment has three common elements:
• a one‐on‐one relationship,
• a goal and action orientation, and
• a commitment to the process on the part of both client and coach.

The first step in developing a successful coaching relationship is to determine the goals of the assignment. The client is in the “driver’s seat” and needs to clearly identify issues, challenges, and opportunities, and discuss what new behaviors to explore or employ. This is where trust comes into play—the client must feel comfortable sharing situations he or she has not handled well, or in which he or she feels less confident, in addition to helping the coach become acquainted with his or her strengths. Further, the client must be open to observations, critique, and feedback that may conflict with his or her self-image.

The coach can only help if the client has provided sufficient information about his or her situation and is open to different interpretations and perspectives. Chandlee Bryan, president of Best Fit Forward, believes that a key value of good coaching is the ability to provide an independent assessment of the client’s situation while providing support for behavior change when necessary.

Ongoing coaching relationships provide opportunities for staff members to debrief situations with their coaches as they occur. This immediacy is enormously beneficial for clients and provides a professional sounding board for potential courses of action. A good coach will help a client clarify options, widen perspectives, and find solutions.

Find the Right Coach

Identifying and selecting an appropriate coach is much harder than it might seem. Anyone can hang out a shingle and proclaim a willingness to provide coaching services, and there are no universally respected qualification for coaches. Complicating matters is the breadth of the field—a life coach may be totally
ineffective as an executive coach and vice versa.

Catherine Fitzgerald, an experienced executive coach, puts her finger on the problem of finding the right person: “The (coaching) field emerged outside of academic institutions, and there isn’t a solid base of theory and research on which coaches can agree.”

The coach search should concentrate first on finding someone with the ability to understand the client’s needs and environment from a first‐hand perspective. Ideally, the coach for a senior student affairs officer would be someone with high‐level administrative experience in academia.

Some clients prefer coaches who have actually walked in their professional “shoes,” but unless the coaching need is related to the subject matter of individuals’ professions, that is usually unnecessary. More important for professional development coaching is that coaches have keen appreciation for the problems and solutions associated with managing staff. Other prerequisites for strong coaches include listening well and helping clients solve their own problems using a wide variety of techniques.

Also, some clients assume that it is best to find coaches who closely resemble them, but there are no data to support the the conclusion that this is necessary for success. Helms agrees: “My coach does not share my race or gender. I have never found my coach to be ineffective based upon our cultural differences. In fact, they complement each other.”

As with any hiring situation, once a client has determined that the coach has the basic requirements, it comes down to fit. No coaching arrangement will work without mutual trust and good chemistry.

Some coaches push clients very hard to make changes, such as becoming more assertive or improving presentation skills. In these cases, the coach will often assign “homework” in between meetings. If a client does not want to have his or her feet held to the fire, it is important to make sure the coach is willing to employ a less directive style.

In cases of performance management coaching, the client’s supervisor may want the final say regarding the coach who is hired, and he or she will also want to be involved in setting clear expectations and timelines for observable change. Yet it would be counter‐productive for a manager to force a coach on an employee, if either party was convinced that coaching would not succeed. Before signing on the dotted line, clients will want to ensure that fees and logistical arrangements meet their criteria.

Logistical Issues and Costs

The length of a coaching assignment is typically six to12 months. It could be shorter if coaching is part of a performance improvement plan that requires that the staff member demonstrate a change in behavior by a certain date. The duration, frequency, and length of a coaching relationship are typically at the discretion of the client and are determined with budget issues in mind. Some managers prefer longer meetings every couple of weeks. Others enjoy the benefit of being able to pick up the phone to debrief situations as they arise. Of critical importance is the coach’s ability to get to know the client and his or her issues and goals very well because coaching is contextual. At the minimum, a two‐hour face‐to‐face meeting at the start of the coaching process is usually required. Follow-up meetings can take place by telephone if that method meets the needs of both parties.

The January 2007 Harvard Management Update reported that a six‐month arrangement with a highly qualified, highly experienced coach can cost between $15,000 and $30,000. Fortunately, coaches who work with academic leaders and managers have lower fee structures.

Nisbet reports that coaching fees for Duke University student affairs staff members typically range from $150 to $350. A discount of 10 to 15 percent can often be arranged if several staff members are working with the same coach or coaching company. Although fees are often quoted at an hourly rate, it may be possible to hire coaches on retainer for a certain period, during which time a staff member has access to the coach on an as‐needed basis.

Gain a Return on Investment

In 2008, Fast Company partnered with Brian Underhill of Coach Source to conduct a research project about coaching with 48 companies. The results of the survey attest to the value of coaching: 63 percent of the responding organizations reported that they planned to increase their use of coaching over the next five years, and 92 percent of the 86 leaders being coached said they expected to use a coach again.

Effective coaching can be valuable to organizations and individuals, but clear expectations about the scope of assignments and coaching styles are keys to success. Beyond agreed-upon expectations, the client must be committed to the process and be willing to leave his or her comfort zone. Both coach and client need to recognize that there are no one‐size‐fits‐all solutions, and there may be some trial and error involved in developing strategies. Openness, trust, and a willingness to hear and share observations are critical to successful coaching relationships.

It is important to note that coaching is not appropriate for all situations. If a manager or director has a particular skill deficiency, training may be more effective. Coaching is better suited to situations that are unique to the client, or where the ability to understand other “players” or the environment is important. No laws govern coaching confidentiality, and the person paying the bills may expect reports from either the coach or the client to validate the return on investment. The required scope of the report may be clearly articulated in the case of performance
improvement coaching, or take the form of a loose request for occasional updates. When updates are voluntary, it is helpful for the coach and client to agree on what will be shared so that a strong sense of trust remains. A report requirement is often perceived negatively by employees, but for the client receiving professional development coaching, feedback to a manager provides an excellent opportunity to talk about career goals, professional development, and management expectations. The likelihood that an investment in coaching will continue is directly linked to the payer’s perception of value.

A Win-Win Solution

Up to 90 percent of a student affairs budget is devoted to employee salary and benefits. In addition, turnover, poor morale, and performance issues all have significant time and cost implications. It makes good economic sense, therefore, to address problems before they arise.

Anecdotal information in academia indicates that coaching is a win‐win for employees and their institutions. Staff members respond well to suggestions for change that take into consideration their styles, backgrounds, and environments. Their supervisors appreciate that results are immediate and targeted to areas that most benefit individual employees’ performance. During times of significant change, coaching has the advantage of timeliness and focus.

Student affairs is ideally situated to lead the way in developing coaching as a effective training method for its employees. In the process, it will benefit from a workforce that is skilled, motivated, and ready to accept the challenges of a new era in academia.

Sheila Curran is a professional coach, specializing in academia. She holds the highest qualification in human resources, the SPHR, and is the former executive director of the Duke University Career Center. She held a similar position at Brown University before starting Curran Career Consulting in 2008. She can
be contacted at

Example of a Coaching Assignment

Name: Stephanie Helms, EdD, Director, Assessment & Professional Development Programs
Duke University, Division of Student Affairs

Type of coaching received? Professional development

When did the coaching relationship start? October 2007

How often do you receive coaching? Once a month, with occasional homework

How long are the sessions? 45 to 60 minutes

What have you learned from coaching? I have strengthened my skills to be strategic in planning and deliberate in my actions. The opportunity to process every step from inception to implementation away from my work environment has been incredibly helpful.

What are the advantages of coaching versus other forms of professional
development? Coaching is uniquely designed for the individual. It allows the ability to measure growth and development over time against pre‐identified variables.

What qualifications or experience does the coach have that make the individual particularly useful to you? I appreciate the coach being skilled in listening and demonstrating appreciative inquiry—asking the right questions. Having an understanding of the environments and cultures I need to explore is essential.

Would you recommend coaching to your peers? I would absolutely recommend coaching to my peers, and I have. Coaching has helped me be more reflective about experiences, as opposed to complaining or feeling stuck

Why is this a good use of your budget? Coaching provides a return on investment
that is immeasurable because it has more of a direct impact than a traditional experience. It is individually designed and tailored to fit the needs of one person.

Types of Coaching Examples

A manager of residential life is promoted to an assistant vice president position, in
which he supervises former colleagues. His coach helps him navigate difficult human
resource issues while becoming a sounding board for his work in a new area: strategic

Professional Development
 A new career center director is hired from the corporate world. A coach works with her to
capitalize on the strengths and knowledge she brings to the position, while helping her to
adapt to the academic world.

Performance Improvement
 The director of student activities has developed wonderful relationships with students, but has been unable to develop a strong and competent staff. Working with a coach is part of a formal performance improvement plan.

 A 55-year-old director of judicial affairs has volunteered to take “early retirement” to save
money for the department, yet she still needs to work. A coach is hired to help the director
transition to a new position and life outside academia.

Leadership Development
 A mid-level manager is identified as someone with significant growth potential. She works with a coach to identify and address competence gaps and ensure a smooth transition to a higher-level position.

Advantages of Coaching over Other Forms of Training

• Tailored to an individual’s personal needs and context

• Focused on client’s goals

• On‐going and flexible

• Addresses situations as they arise

• Requires no travel

• Delivers proven return on investment

Questions to Address when Choosing a Coach

• Does the coach have a clear idea of how to achieve results through coaching?

• Does the coach have the required technical skill set (e.g., experience in management or
human resources)?
• Does the coach have the right personal characteristics (e.g., ability to establish
rapport, trustworthiness, willingness to listen)?

• Does the coach have an understanding of the client’s work and organizational

• Does the coach have a strong track record in coaching?

• Can the coach be available when needed and accommodate preferences for on‐site, in‐person, or telephone coaching?

• Are the coach’s fees within the budget for coaching?

Published in the NASPA Leadership Exchange magazine, Summer 2009 edition.

Why Higher Education Can’t Ignore Graduate Unemployment

Press Release



Providing essential career information and consulting to higher education and individuals



FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, July 2, 2009

CONTACT: Sheila Curran
(919) 599 6207


Now that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has released its June statistics, all eyes will be focused on the overall unemployment rate of 9.5%–a rate only slightly higher than that reported in May. But there is one piece of data that deserves greater attention: The rate of unemployment for college graduates over the age of 25 has risen more rapidly than for any other educational cohort. In June of 2008, the rate was 2.4%; now, it stands at 4.8%.

Over a million college graduates lost their jobs in the past year. They are competing for employment with the roughly 1.2 million new graduates who are estimated to have joined the ranks of job seekers.

While an unemployment rate of 4.8% may seem low compared to the overall rate, these unemployed individuals have collectively spent millions of dollars on their educations. Many of them have advanced degrees and significant debt loads. They expect an economic return on their tuition investment.

When the unemployment rate for college graduates over age 25 was less than 2%–true for almost all of 2002, for example—colleges and universities could logically assume that their graduates would find positions without much help. That is no longer true. A significant number of today’s college graduates will be forced to accept a job that does not require either a college degree or professional experience—if they can find one at all.

The cost of tuition, room and board at a 4-year institution rose 32% for private colleges and 42% for public universities between 2002 and 2008, with average costs in 2008 running at $30,393 and $13,639 respectively. With such increases come expectations, verified in surveys conducted by the educational research company Eduventures, that higher education will prepare students for their futures beyond college. Prospective students evaluate the degree to which an institution will provide access to professional development opportunities, connections, internships and jobs.

Sheila Curran, a career strategy expert, who has directed career centers at Duke University and Brown University, believes the time has come to think creatively about linking college to career. She recommends an institution-wide approach to securing graduate success that takes full advantage of alumni and parents as career resources. Says Curran, “Exceptional career services can be a key asset that helps colleges and universities to differentiate themselves from their peers.”


Career Services: Cost Center or Strategic Advantage

Are college career services offices fast becoming irrelevant? In this slideshow, presented for the Boston College Career Summit on June 24, 2009, Sheila Curran makes the case that career services offices can be an extraordinary strategic advantage to their institutions, but only if they embrace change.

Career Services: Cost Center or Strategic Advantage?


Webinar on Revolutionizing Career Services

Visitors to this site are invited to view and listen to the  webinar slides and discussion on Revolutionizing Career Services: Meeting the Needs of Today’s Students and Alumni, presented by Sheila Curran, and Laura Boothroyd, Managing Director of Consulting Services at Eduventures. Please send comments and questions to


Revolution in Career Services

In this article, Sheila Curran, President of Curran Career Consulting, and Steve Goldenberg, CEO of Interfolio, share a candid and provocative discussion on the future of career services in colleges and universities.

Steve: Students graduating in 2009 are facing bleak employment prospects. Are Careers offices prepared for the onslaught of demand from worried students and laid-off graduates?

Sheila: That’s an interesting question, because in all the articles I’ve read about the impact of the economy on graduate hiring, I have only once seen reference to worried students flocking to career services. Contrary to conventional wisdom, in prior recessions, the number of visits to career services offices often fell compared to traffic during good times. And I haven’t heard of any student government organization demanding more assistance for their constituents.

Steve: Why are students not seeing the handwriting of unemployment on the wall?

Sheila: Probably the first reason is that many fall career fairs—and even some held in the winter—were full. To students, employers at career fairs means available jobs. But in late 2008, many employers were hedging their bets, not knowing where the economy was heading. The second reason students aren’t going to their career services office is that they may not be convinced that there is anything these offices can do to help.

Steve: Well, are they right? Can career services offices really do much to help when the whole economy is tanking?

Sheila: Absolutely, but they’ll need a completely different approach. Most colleges have now started doing seminars on finding jobs in a down economy, and that’s great, but it’s not enough. Careers offices need to re-invent themselves, just like they advise their laid-off clients.

Steve: Are you talking about a short-term fix to deal with this economy, or do you have something completely different in mind?

Sheila: Actually, I’m calling for a revolution in the way business is done in career services. The new model would be effective in both good economic times and bad, but its benefits would be immediately apparent.

Steve: And you’d implement this new plan now, when career services offices are under intense pressure to provide more with less? That sounds a little crazy.

Sheila: Absolutely. Here’s why. This recession is different. First, every area of the economy is affected, and probably will be for some time. We’re not only looking at large scale unemployment of college grads immediately after graduation, but also the continued unemployment or underemployment of thousands of college grads for some time to come. Remember, significantly over a million students will graduate this spring, trying to be absorbed into an economy where close to a million college grads lost their jobs in the past year.

My second point, which is probably even more important, is this: Parents who foot the bill are increasingly concerned about the value of their investment in higher education. Their involvement in their children’s futures is not surprising: The average cost of a four-year college education increased at a rate of 5.6% (2.9% above the rate of inflation) between 1998 and 2008. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education 2008 Almanac, the average annual cost for tuition, fees, and accommodation in 2007-2008 exceeded $35,000, and a number of colleges have now crossed the $50K a year threshold.

Steve: That makes sense, but it still makes me wonder how any office could organize itself to give its students or graduates an edge.

Sheila: It’s possible, but it’s not easy. A pre-requisite is university leadership that values the success of its students and graduates. Given that support, career services offices need to change the way they do business. Typically, careers offices are set up so that they are the hub: employers come to them and students come to them. At the end of the revolution that I advocate, careers offices will have much less control, but they’ll be much more effective. Step one is identifying and concentrating on core competencies. Step two is getting out ahead of the game. And step three is building and facilitating a career community.

Steve: I want you to go through your steps in detail, but before you do, are you saying that if something is not a core competency, a career services office should give it up?

Sheila: You’re absolutely right. Giving up programs, services and activities has always been difficult for colleges and universities, but this is the time to bite the bullet. Besides, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the task won’t be done, just that the careers office will not devote time to doing it.

Steve: I need an example.

Sheila: You probably provide the best example, Steve. Ten years ago, if colleges offered a credentials services, they probably offered it in-house through their career services office. Initially there was a lot of suspicion about whether companies like Interfolio could do as good a job as the in-house service. But taking your company as an example, it’s clear that not only can outsourcing save money, it can also provide additional, value-added services to its clients. Almost all careers offices do some outsourcing right now—usually in the form of a recruiting system—but there are other areas of untapped potential for outsourcing. For example, how many colleges have thought about outsourcing the administration of their on-campus interview scheduling or their career fair management? And how many universities re-invent the wheel every year producing career content that is readily available for free on the web. The bottom line is, if something is not your core competency, or if another entity does the same task more efficiently or effectively, careers offices need to consider changing how they do business.

Steve: What do you say to those career directors who don’t want to lay off the person who’s been performing the task in house?

Sheila: In my new model, the careers office would still have just as many staff; they’d just be working on different tasks. So I’d say this to the career director:  If your credentials person is a great performer, re-train her for one of the new roles. Preparing students for careers is not rocket science. It will, however, require that staff embrace change and continuous education.

Steve: OK, let’s move on to your second point: Getting out ahead of the game. What does that mean?

Sheila: Any good public relations firm will advise that when you have bad news, you need to talk about it before it hits the media. The effect of the economy on the class of 2009 is not an exactly analogous situation, because the bad news is not focused on one particular university, but there are still enormous benefits to identifying the problem as early as possible and explaining how you’ll deal with it. Places like Babson College in Boston started a communication campaign months ago. Not coincidentally, they also have a plan to reach out to all their graduates and a commitment to help them until they find work. Few colleges have been as proactive as Babson, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late. Students need to know that the college or university has a vested interest in their success, and that there is some kind of service safety net. I recently picked two students for dinner and asked them how they were doing. Met with complete silence, I probed further. It turns out they were incredibly worried about their internship and job searches, but felt totally alone. The successful careers office will make communication, concern and commitment to students the building blocks upon which they fashion programs and initiatives.

Steve: Are you talking about a proactive approach just for seniors?

Sheila: No, although it’s certainly essential to address the current needs of the class of 2009. What I’d like to see is an emphasis from the day a student sets foot on campus on developing interests and values, and taking advantage of opportunities. I’m a firm believer that the student who makes the most of education—inside and outside the classroom– is the one who is best prepared for whatever they choose to do after graduation. We need to make it the norm for students to not know what they want to do when they leave college and for the whole university or college to support their career development.

Steve: So getting out ahead of the game means communicating expectations about college and career from the time a student matriculates, and articulating the responsibilities of both student and institution?

Sheila: Yes, but the proactive approach must go way beyond setting expectations about how a student can get from college to a career they love. Careers offices must take the initiative to understand the organizations and industries in which their students are likely to be interested. And it can’t just be done through internet research. Careers staff have to get out and talk to employers and help employers determine where there might be a good pipeline of potential employees from a particular college. Essentially, I’m saying Careers offices need to add sales to their portfolio of skills.

Steve: I can imagine you’ll have a lot of pushback on that idea.

Sheila: Absolutely. Someone who is trained as a traditional career counselor may be uncomfortable in a role that asks them to promote their students to employers—even if the promotion is not of specific students but of students with certain characteristics and educational background. In many Careers offices it may be possible to limit the “sales” role to one of two people, and keep the traditional career counselor role the same. But there are enormous benefits to having an entrepreneurial and outward-looking philosophy pervade the whole careers arena.

Steve: I’ve always been a big fan of entrepreneurship. What does entrepreneurship mean in the context of a Careers office?

Sheila: It means we recognize that the careers world is constantly changing, and that we need to adapt with it. Different generations approach work differently. Employers, even Fortune 100 companies, come and go. Careers will exist next year that aren’t even on our radar screen today. The careers world is a fascinating place to be. But it’s not one where we can ever sit still and say “well, we’ve got that one down”. If we are not entrepreneurial in the way we help our students, we’ve lost the battle. I think there’s general agreement now that we must train students not just for their first job, but for a lifetime of changing jobs and careers. In the Careers office, we need to exhibit the same kind of flexibility and entrepreneurial attitude that we encourage in our clients.

Steve: This sounds like you’re advocating that Careers office staff act very differently from most university employees.

Sheila: You’re right. It’s the job of the Careers office to help students recognize how their educational experiences connect to their lives after college. Careers staff will never be taken seriously by their academic colleagues until they can prove that they understand the value of the education students receive.

Steve: That’s easy to do when a student studies a pre-professional subject like nursing or accounting. But isn’t it much more difficult when someone is studying a liberal arts subject? I know you got a bachelor’s degree in Russian and Persian. Is there really a case to be made for why that’s a good background for the work you do?

Sheila: The connection between a liberal arts degree and a career is definitely much less obvious when the subject matter of that degree is not the content of a person’s career. But I think we concentrate way too much on the subject matter of a student’s degree. All Careers staff need to be able to articulate what skills and characteristics a student can gain through education in and out of the classroom, and the ways in which students will need to supplement that education with experience in order to be qualified for the positions they seek. What I’m really advocating when I say that Careers offices need to get out ahead of the game is that they take the initiative to help both employers and students identify how they can meet each other’s needs. That doesn’t happen automatically. And it’s a place where Careers staff can really make a difference.

Steve: Let’s move on to your third point: Building a career community.

Sheila: I start from a very strong viewpoint that most Careers offices can’t get there from here.

Steve: OK. I’ll bite. Where’s the “there” that Careers offices can’t get to?

Sheila: I’m talking about mission “scope creep”. Most Careers office missions I’ve read are essentially missions impossible, trying to offer comprehensive services to undergraduates, graduate students and alumni. Even taking alumni out of the equation, the ratio of professional staff to students is about 1 to 1000 in private schools and 1:2000+ in public institutions. Yet, most offices still aim to provide in-person advising and counseling. With the lack of staff, it’s no wonder that most Careers offices get mediocre results in university-wide surveys.

Steve: Are you making the case for more staff?

Sheila: Absolutely, but the reality is that’s not going to happen in this economy—unless, of course, you happen to be in a business school that wants to increase its standing in the rankings. For most schools, I believe the only way to give students the services and expertise they need is to build a career community.

Steve: How does that work?

Most colleges and universities have alumni, parents and friends who are devoted to the school and would enjoy advising students about the career field in which they’re involved. Many times, schools have a formal alumni network, but what I advocate is a much more comprehensive initiative that is actively managed by the Careers office. Members of the Career Community would be tapped to give presentations on specific career fields; advise students one-on-one in their area of expertise; promote students to their companies; and source employment opportunities.

Steve: It sounds like a great idea, but how do you ensure that the Career Community gives good advice?

Sheila: The key is that the Career Community would be made up of individuals with whom Careers staff already have, or are prepared to build, a relationship. It would certainly be helpful to have Community members start providing service on a pilot basis, and it’s important that students have the opportunity to rate their advice and assistance.
Steve: I imagine building a Career Community would be very time intensive for staff.

Sheila: You’re right, but it’s worth shifting some staff responsibilities, or eliminating less useful programs, in order to facilitate relationships with volunteers and expand Careers staff knowledge.

Steve: Wouldn’t a Career Community be expensive?

Sheila: Since the Career Community members would be volunteers, the only financial outlay would be for training and appreciation events. A Career Community provides an incredible engagement opportunity for alumni, so it might be possible to gain some funding from the Alumni Association or Development Office.

Steve: It seems that these offices would be natural allies of the Careers office, anyway.

Sheila: You’re right, but in a recent poll I conducted, almost two thirds of Alumni and Careers offices claimed to collaborate only occasionally or rarely.

Steve: How do you propose a Careers office remedy that?

Sheila: The Careers office of the future needs to be a key player on the institutional stage. It needs to articulate to senior administrators its value and the areas for which it can be held accountable. When these leaders understand that the Careers office can be a strategic advantage, they will be much more likely to appreciate and promote the value of a coordinated effort to enhance the success of graduates.

A couple of years ago at the first Career Summit at Duke, my Vice President of Student Affairs, Larry Moneta, asked the group to articulate why Careers offices were relevant. The fact is, senior university leadership is going to demand that Careers offices prove their worth.

Steve: Once colleges and universities have stopped slashing budgets, do you think that careers offices will get back to business as usual?

Sheila: The short answer is “no”. Over the past thirty years, careers have changed out of all recognition and parental demands for an economic value to their tuition investment have increased to a fever pitch. We can no longer “tweak” an outdated model. It’s time for revolution.

Graduate Unemployment: The Threat to Higher Education

Fiscal year, 2009, will go down in the annals of history as one of the most difficult for higher education. Many colleges and universities have had to trim to the bone, collectively shedding thousands of positions, while they try to beef up financial aid budgets. A great deal of attention has been paid to managing the economic ramifications caused by falling endowments and high tuition.

But few colleges have addressed a related threat on the horizon: the inevitability of post-graduate unemployment. Prospects for high paying, high prestige jobs in finance are already as rare as a seven-figure donor. Outside of finance, the employment outlook is better, but realistically can be described as gloomy. And the bad news holds true, whether the student is completing undergraduate, graduate or professional school.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that significantly more than one million college graduates over the age of 25 lost their jobs in FY09, pushing the unemployment rate for their cohort to 4.8% in June, precisely double the rate of June, 2008. And, the unemployment rate for those new graduates currently seeking jobs is already at 10.8%.

Higher education might be tempted to avoid the issue of rising graduate unemployment and place its faith in the Career Services department to alleviate student anxiety about the future. Across the country, students are being advised to start their career searches early and be more flexible in their attitudes towards opportunities. But these initiatives, however valuable, are not enough. A situation of this magnitude requires a response from senior leadership at colleges and universities.

There are compelling reasons why higher education needs to address the impending career crisis. No college wants to field calls from hundreds of graduates (or their parents) who will be incapable of paying off student loans. Nor do they want to see their unemployed graduates profiled in the local or national media. For many schools, the career success of students also affects core issues like matriculation and retention.

In the summer of 2007, a leading educational research company, Eduventures, surveyed more than 5,500 freshmen and high school seniors about the factors that were important to them when choosing a college. Sixty percent, not surprisingly, considered the school’s overall academic reputation to be one of the top three factors. But an almost equal percentage cited the expectation that the school would prepare them for their careers.

The Eduventures data appears to suggest that students—and their parents—are willing to overlook the high cost of education if they believe there is an economic value to a degree. Students applying to college in 2009 are likely to carefully scrutinize the career outcomes for a particular institution. An expensive college whose graduates are still consistently unemployed may end up losing prospective matriculants to a public institution, or to a college that has found ways to mitigate the adverse effects of a poor economy.

The career crisis will undoubtedly be felt as we move into fall, but the problems for universities may begin much sooner, in the form of retention issues. Students, particularly those who attend school while working, may reconsider the wisdom of incurring substantial debt without a guarantee of a better position after graduation.

A recent advertisement for a part-time receptionist position in Rhode Island drew over one hundred applicants, a high proportion of whom were college graduates. Students who see recent graduates from their school accepting jobs that do not require college degrees may question their own educational investment.

So what is a college of university to do?

The first step is to recognize that graduate career success is essential to the long-term health of any institution of higher education. Even if matriculation and retention are not problems, the career success of alumni drives donations to the college and volunteer involvement.

Now, more than ever, colleges and universities must communicate their vision of graduate success, and take steps to ensure that desired outcomes are achieved—regardless of the economy. Bold career leadership is required to exploit opportunities for institutional impact on a student long after graduation, while addressing immediate career issues.

Second, universities must appreciate the value of a coordinated approach to career development–one that integrates the experiences of the student in and out of the classroom, and incorporates service learning, study abroad, athletics, student leadership, mentored research and internships. Currently, the divisions that house each of these functions often act more like silos than collaborators, leading to duplication of effort and confusion.

The recommendation to involve different areas in no way implies that everything that happens on a college campus is career-related, or that the academic agenda needs to be changed. Rather, it is recognition that without high-level oversight and common understanding, it will be more difficult to achieve post-graduate career success.

Third, colleges and universities must capitalize on their own resources. Many academic institutions have networks of alumni who have volunteered to give career advice to students and alumni. This is the time to expand the networks to include parents and friends, and to build more personal relationships with volunteers. A concerted effort must also be made to prepare students to take advantage of such networks.

A key requirement in this economy is to be aware of a volunteer’s work situation. When a volunteer is well situated, he may enjoy being tapped for job leads and advice. But when the volunteer has, himself, fallen victim to the economy, a college builds extraordinary good will and long term commitment by offering the option of advice for his own career.

Finally, it is important that any new initiative involve professionals in the career services department. These are the people who have their fingers on the pulse of university, student, and employer needs. Given clear goals, they can assist university leaders in designing strategies and initiatives. But they cannot do it alone. There must be an expectation that university departments will work together.

Institutions of higher education are currently facing significant financial restraints. Fortunately, the ability to address the career crisis requires a comparatively small financial investment, or the redistribution of existing funds. What is much more important than money is a new vision for careers and graduate success.

Colleges and universities that deal with increasing demand for career assistance by providing more of the same services to students will forego the benefits that accrue to institutions which adopt a more creative, coordinated, and inclusive approach to careers.

Careers & The College Grad: What’s a Liberal Education Got To Do With It?

Written for the First National Career Summit, hosted by Sheila Curran at Duke University, March, 2006


Seventy-two percent of high school seniors perceive professional preparation as a key
driver of educational value. This is according to research conducted by Eduventures, a
Boston-based consulting company. When choosing colleges, these students assess access
to internships, placement record and the quality of the career office. Given these
statistics, it is likely that colleges and universities will increasingly view the careers
office as a strategic partner in attracting students, leading to increased visibility and
funding. However, before those of us in the careers field start cheering too loudly, it’s
worth evaluating whether we think this emphasis on pre-professionalism is a good idea,
particularly in a predominantly liberal arts institution. This paper explores the role of a
top college or university in preparing its graduates for the future, and issues that must be
addressed by those responsible for the academic program and careers offices.

The Consumer View

First, let’s look at what’s driving student opinion. There are good reasons for students and
their parents to be concerned about the future, given the high cost of education and
average debt at graduation of around $11,000. But what the Eduventures information also
suggests is that a significant proportion of students–and, no doubt, their families–are
viewing education primarily as a means to an end. In other words, students and their
families are buying a “brand” which provides a quid pro quo for their financial
investment. This investment is expected to lead to a high-paying job after graduation, or
access to a top medical, law, or graduate education.

The attitude of incoming freshmen is troubling on a number of fronts. Consider the
assumptions that appear to lie buried in the statistics, and are borne out in anecdotal
information from students:
• The end result of education is more important that the education itself
• Education that does not appear to have immediate pre-professional relevance is perceived as a luxury
• Success is defined by having a high-paying job at graduation

At a recent conference at Duke for high school guidance counselors, participants echoed
the research about student and parental attitude towards the college search. They also
pointed out that little information is available about what graduates really do after a
liberal arts education, and how they might best use a liberal arts education to their career
benefit. My coauthored book, published in May 2006 and titled Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career, was written to address some of the
prevailing myths and assumptions.

Education and Preparation for a Lifetime of Changing Careers

While students and their parents typically look to student success immediately after
graduation as a test of whether an institution is providing a return on investment, these
results are not a true measure of the value of education. The fact is, most entry-level jobs
don’t require the kind of advanced abilities that can be developed through a good college
education. A better metric for success is the degree to which our institutions help students
develop the ability to progress throughout their careers, and ultimately to make a
difference in the world.

To illustrate this point, Appendix A identifies the basic skill sets that students need at
graduation. They are listed in order of importance as identified in the National
Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2007 employer survey. Appendix B identifies
the vastly more complex characteristics anticipated for success in 2020. I chose the year
2020 because I like the idea of 2020 foresight rather than hindsight. Plus, after thirteen
years in the work world, 2007 graduates will be poised for the kinds of positions
requiring broad responsibility. More important than the success characteristics
themselves is the identification on the chart of the ways in which a student can use his or
her college education to develop these attributes. It is clear that our view of education
needs to include all learning that takes place during the time the individual is a student:
classroom learning, extra-curricular activities, and work-related experiences.

Success Characteristics in the Work World of 2020

As indicated above, a strong liberal arts education prepares students best not for their first
jobs, but for jobs at mid management level and above. Clearly career centers need to
help students find employment immediately after graduation, but if they simply
accomplish that task, they will have missed the opportunity to prepare students for a
lifetime of changing work and careers. More important, they may neglect the task of
educating students about how they can best use skills developed in college as they
progress in their careers.

In 2020, it is likely that the most successful people will need the following skills:
• Leadership and management (encompasses need for emotional intelligence; vision; communication and human relations skills; persuasion)
• Motivation and initiative (encompasses need for tenacity and focus)
• Ability to move swiftly to capitalize on opportunity—both business and personal (encompasses flexibility; adaptability; ability to learn from experience; initiative, entrepreneurial spirit; sense of responsibility for self)
• Ability to leverage resources—people and things (encompasses ability to communicate; political savvy; human relations skills; an understanding of the way things work)
• Willingness to continually learn, reflect and change course (encompasses need for on-going analysis and reflection)
• Cross-cultural understanding and appreciation for difference (encompasses communications skills; ability to see things from different points of view; ability to synthesize and interpret information and create cogent arguments; foreign language skill)
• Honesty, integrity and strong work ethic (encompasses leadership and empathy)

Being aware of success characteristics for 2020 is important. But achieving them is
difficult unless career professionals and academic advisors give a consistent message
from the time of matriculation about how we view the relationship between education
and career. To promote the kind of graduate success that reflects well on colleges and
universities, there should be expectations for both institutions and students.

Recommendations for Academia

Increase opportunities for true immersion experiences through which students can
tackle thorny societal problems. (Duke Engage is a good example.) Recognize
that student initiative is critical to getting the most out of these experiences, and
ensure that mentoring, guidance, and reflection opportunities are available.

Improve advising. Few colleges or universities—particularly research
universities—would receive an “A” for advising services. Yet trained advisors
early in a student’s career can be instrumental in helping students make the most
of their education from a career perspective.

Build into the curriculum opportunities to practice communication skills,
particularly those that encourage listening, hearing and being able to articulate
different points of view. Support the debate team. Teach rhetoric!

Assess and evaluate programs, especially those like Study Abroad, that involve a
significant percentage of students. Consider introducing an area studies
requirement and a foreign language requirement so that students can gain the most
from their experience abroad. Don’t take it for granted that students will step out
of their comfort zones. Make it an expectation.

Encourage and support students who take responsibility for their own education,
and who seek out opportunities and resources. Support faculty and staff who
engage with students on an intellectual and personal level.

Encourage interdisciplinary work and the application of knowledge in real world
situations. Service learning is the ideal opportunity to integrate learning in and
out of the classroom. However, other areas could also lend themselves well to
working on projects that relate to classroom learning. Thus, a history course on
the holocaust could lead to helping to plan and promote a holocaust exhibit.

We cannot expect that students will know how important it is to take full advantage
of education, broadly defined. Therefore it is incumbent upon careers offices and
academic administration to reinforce the same message: that success after college is
dependent not just on the accumulation of knowledge, but also on the development of
attitudes and behaviors. It is also important that we educate students from the time
they set foot on campus about the purposes of a college education, and its relationship
to what they do once they graduate.

The Ideal: A Message to Incoming First Years

  1. A college education is the sum total of your student experiences. You can
learn in the classroom, through extracurricular activities, on the athletic field,
through internships and beyond. Learning outside the classroom may prove to
be more important to your career than the subject of your degree. The quality
of your education is determined—at least in part—by the degree to which you
immerse yourself in learning. Take responsibility for, and engage with all
aspects of your education.
  2. When you matriculate at college, you’re not expected to know what you want
to do after you graduate. Abandon preconceived notions of acceptable career
directions. Make the decision yours!
  3. Recognize that confusion and discomfort is not only normal, it’s expected and
it’s a good thing. Give yourself permission to not be perfect. Allow yourself
to fail. But make sure you learn from failure. You can recover from a “D”.
  4. Don’t choose your major too early, or decide on a major because you’re close
to completing the requirements, or you think you need it for a particular
career. (You may not!) It’s much more important to study what you love than
to follow a path that may be more common but doesn’t interest you. You can
pursue most career paths with any major. Major doesn’t equal career, and
more majors doesn’t equal better careers. Resist the temptation to build
academic credentials at the expense of exploring new horizons.
  5. A high GPA may be necessary for a good graduate school, professional school
fellowships/scholarships, or for employment in investment banks/consulting
firms, but most positions do not require a GPA above a 3.0. Employers rarely
consider GPA for second jobs. Students with the best academic records aren’t
necessarily the best candidates for employment. Employers want to see
transferable skills, which can be drawn from any part of your education.
  6. Graduate school may not be as necessary as you think. Only go to graduate
school or professional school if you are convinced you need that type of
education for what you want to do.
  7. Study abroad can be a career boost or a career bust. Almost all students enjoy
their study abroad experience, but it can only give you a real career advantage
if you step outside your comfort zone and learn skills like linguistic fluency,
cross-cultural competency, flexibility, resilience, and decision
making/problem solving. To obtain a career advantage, you need to have a
true international experience, not an American experience abroad.
  8. You’re missing the boat if you don’t build relationships with faculty, staff and
advisors early in your time at college: they can be your biggest allies and
  9. Define success for yourself, even if it means you’ll be unemployed at
graduation and won’t be making the highest salary. Being employed at
graduation has more to do with the type of employer you seek than with your
value to the work world. Most employers of top college grads do “just in
time” hiring, so that you can only be hired when an employee has left.
Prepare for the job search while at college, but recognize the actual
application process may happen after finals.
  10. Careers don’t happen over night: they take time. Build a partnership with
counselors in the Career Center and/or with trusted advisors, so that you learn
the realities of life after graduation, and understand how you can best prepare
yourself through your college education.


Education and career preparation are symbiotic. The more a student learns in college,
and takes advantage of work and internship opportunities, the more likely it is that he or
she will be considered a compelling candidate for employment. However, to make this
connection happen requires a partnership between academic administration, student
affairs and the careers office.

Some universities, like Duke, have already made progress by coding courses to identify
what attributes or skills will be developed through the class. But we need to go further.
Now is the time to make the connection between classroom learning, extracurricular
learning, and career. Once that connection is made, students will come to understand that
they can reach their professional goals while gaining something infinitely more valuable:
a true education.

Appendix A and B are available by emailing Sheila Curran at

“Major” Decisions

Choosing a college major can feel like an overwhelming decision. Teen Ink asked Duke University Career Center’s Sheila J. Curran to give some expert advice. Here’s what she had to say:

Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, friends. As soon as you reach high school, they’re asking you where you want to go to college. Their next question, invariably, is “what are you going to major in?” The answer is supposed to come tripping off your tongue, but your likely reaction is to want to bury your head in the pillow. The reality is that most teens are confused about their direction. Colleges provide plenty of majors that aren’t even available in high school. And what you are good at in high school may be very different from where you excel at the college level. To help you figure out the right major for you, here are some questions you should ask yourself.

Are you sure you want the subject matter of your major to be your career? If you major in accounting, employers will assume you want to be an accountant. A pre-professional major can be helpful if you know exactly what career you want to pursue when you graduate, but it can also pigeon-hole you.

Are you truly interested in a particular subject? If your passion is history, don’t be put off by the fact that you can’t associate history with a future job title. If you study a liberal arts subject, you’ll be gathering plenty of job-related skills, like research, communication and problem-solving ability. And if you study a subject you enjoy, you’re likely to work harder and get a better GPA.

Do you need to decide now? Many colleges allow you up to two years to declare a major. This gives you time to try new subjects and explore where they may lead. The vast majority of students change their minds about what to study — often several times — between the time they start college and the time they declare a major.

When you get to college, you’ll find plenty of advisors who are willing to help you plan your education, and tell you how to reach your educational and career objectives. So unless you have to commit to a particular course of study prior to going to college, tell your family “I haven’t decided on a major. But I’m sure I’ll figure it out.”

Choosing a Major or Concentration

A number of years ago, I received a call from an anxious parent. He said he wanted urgent and specialized career advice for his son. It turned out that his son was only a freshman and had, in fact, just finished orientation at Brown University. The problem? The student had come to Brown proclaiming his desire to major in computer science and had been convinced by new friends in his first few days of college to major in philosophy.

His father’s lament rang loud and clear: “But there are no jobs as philosophers!” This concern was echoed recently by a group of guidance counselors from across the country who visited Duke University. I asked them to tell me the number one concern of parents. Unanimously, they asserted that parents wanted their children to use their educational experience to obtain a successful career.

As a parent, I understand this concern. After all, college often costs enough to require a second mortgage. As the director of a large career center, however, I know that parents often worry unnecessarily. That’s because I’ve seen plenty of philosophy majors who’ve managed to do everything from investment banking to law to starting their own business. Marshall Gregory, professor of English, liberal education and pedagogy at Butler University puts it this way. “In 35 years of teaching, I have never seen a student who really wanted a job fail to get one after graduation, regardless of his or her major…But I have seen many students fail to get an education because they were fixated on the fiction that one particular major or another held the magical key to financial success for the rest of their lives.” For guidance counselors, there’s a real balance between encouraging the educational aspirations of students and assuaging the fears of their parents.

Choosing a major is easiest for students for whom education is identified as a means to an end: employment. Some students identify their intended career at 18 and find a course of study that leads directly to that occupation. Obviously, if you intend to be an accountant, it’s a good idea to major in Accounting. If you want a career related to sports, Sports, Entertainment and Event Management could be a great major. Such certainty at 18, however, is rare. And if students are looking at higher education as an opportunity to grow and develop in a number of different directions, they may significantly limit their options by following a specific career-related path.

Top colleges may not even offer business or other pre-professional options. Still, students will often try to get as close as possible by choosing to study majors like economics that they perceive as more practical. College is too short, however, to pursue a major in which you have little interest. A recent survey of the class of ‘09 at Duke identified that 22 percent of freshmen intended to follow a pre-med curriculum. This expression of interest probably hadn’t changed much in four years, yet only seven percent of the class of ‘06 actually went immediately to med school. Were they unqualified? No. They either chose to wait a year or two before matriculating or they found other careers that turned out to be better suited to their interests and values. From a career perspective, there are few occasions when it is truly advantageous to select your major or course of study very early. Delaying the decision on majors may help students to enjoy college academics more, while opening up previously unknown vistas.

Many students come to college with preconceived notions about majors and their associated career possibilities. There are numerous myths that get in the way of good decision-making. The first is that major equals career. It doesn’t. The second is that it’s better to study something that’s practical, rather than a subject you love. It isn’t. The third is that you need to select your major early if you want a good job, and never change your mind. Not true.

For evidence that major doesn’t equal career, I encourage you to read the book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. One of the reasons I wrote this book with a colleague, Suzanne Greenwald, was to demonstrate that you can do just about anything with any liberal arts or sciences degree. Smart Moves includes the entire career stories of 23 fairly recent graduates with liberal arts degrees who have gone on to do all manner of interesting things. All of them are off the family payroll. More importantly, they’re pursuing work they love and few of them are using the subject matter of their major. It turns out that your success after graduation depends much less on the subject matter that you study and much more on your demonstrated interests, aptitudes and experience. Plenty of other factors also come into play, such as personal characteristics, passion and persistence.

There’s also a great deal of anecdotal evidence to support the notion that it’s better to learn how to think in college than to study a craft. Time and again, I’ve been told by top people in the media that, for example, they would rather train a recent graduate with experience writing for the school newspaper and a liberal arts degree, than a person with a bachelor’s degree in journalism who was less well-rounded.

So that leads us to the final and most important question: How should students choose a major? Most colleges require major decisions to be made some time in the sophomore year, so it’s important to explore as much as possible in the first year to get a sense of the possibilities. Students should read course descriptions; talk to upper-class students and professors, discover the career realities of alumni, and discuss their thoughts and concerns with academic and career advisors. Only if students are willing to explore interests, options and implications, can they make sound decisions about their major.

Sheila Curran is the Fannie Mitchell Executive Director of the Duke University Career Center, where she has served as an academic advisor. She is the co-author of a book published in May, 2006, by Ten Speed Press, entitled Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career ( Sheila regularly talks to students, parents and alumni about making the most of a college education from a career perspective, and writes a column titled “Curran on Careers” for