The Future of Career Services in Higher Education: 5 Trends Colleges and Universities Can Expect


Over the past several years, the career services function within colleges and universities has been significantly impacted. Between an economic downturn and new federal regulations, career services teams are having to elevate their support to a higher level than in years past.

The recent recession has put a tremendous amount of pressure on job seekers. Among those facing these challenges are graduates who have spent the last three, four, five or even more years preparing themselves for the workplace only to find their dream jobs are not waiting for them.

Economic Considerations: 
The current economy is creating challenges for career seekers that those from previous graduating classes didn’t face. It was not long ago that employers had to step up their recruiting efforts in order to attract and court future employees. Graduates entered the job market having their pick of opportunities and even the ability to negotiate salaries.

However, the recent recession has changed that dynamic dramatically. Today, there are fewer jobs and more competition to acquire those jobs. More pressure is being put on colleges themselves to help graduates secure job placementand launch a career in the student’s field of study.

Regulatory Factors: 
In addition to the economic challenges presented in placing students, the federal government has applied additional pressure on colleges and universities to place graduates on career paths in a recognized occupation where they can successfully repay their loans and avoid default. While regulations such as Gainful Employment are currently targeting career college programs, many pundits anticipate these regulations will hold colleges and universities to these same regulations in the near future.

Higher education is at a crossroads when it comes to career services and job placement. Institutions need to look for new ways to help students and graduates succeed beyond the classroom on a professional level.

Until recently, schools haven’t dedicated a lot of resources to career services because stronger market conditions meant it was easier for graduates to get jobs. This also meant less post-graduation accountability on the part of institutions. If a college was successful in training a student for the workplace, and that student met or exceeded the standards in his or her chosen field, then the college had done its job.

The stronger economy in the past has enabled colleges to put resources into other places, namely recruiting. Getting the right students enrolled in the right programs not only had a direct financial benefit to the institution, but it also increased the likelihood of producing successful graduates and qualified job applicants.

While this approach has helped more students fulfill their academic potential, and enabled colleges and universities to deliver their academic missions, it has yielded some challenges:

    • More Graduates, Less Jobs – higher education is now in a situation where colleges are producing an increasing number of qualified graduates, yet these graduates have fewer career opportunities in front of them. On top of that, because the recession has resulted in challenging times for graduates, the government has stepped in to oversee recruitment and placement activities to ensure institutions are in compliance and students’ needs are being met.
  • More Graduates, Less Resources – until now, higher education has had to deliver minimal resources to help students find and secure available jobs. Fewer jobs lead to more competition among graduates, leaving students who don’t come out ahead of the pack with very few options.

Higher education knows that something needs to be done. The industry is seeing a shift as career services gain traction in priority and importance primarily because of the current economic situation and government intervention.

Recession and Weak Job Market: 
Although experts predict that economic recovery isn’t far off, over the last few years, there has been more pressure for schools to make sure their graduates have the necessary skills to attract employers. However, it goes beyond simply preparing students for the real world.

Fewer jobs means no matter how qualified the student is, he or she needs more help navigating the placement process. Colleges are being expected to shoulder some, if not a lot, of this responsibility.

Federal Regulatory Landscape: 
Pending regulations proposed by the Department of Education have put for-profit colleges and universities under the microscope to prove placement rates for graduates. Institutions must evolve their career services and placement strategies, as well as reallocate money and staff given the regulatory landscape.

The recently released Gainful Employment ruling will dramatically impact the ways schools approach career services. Schools not only need to place students, but they need to do so in positions that give the students the highest likelihood that they will be able to pay down any debt accrued from financing their education. Specifically, the Department of Education states that Gainful Employment requires schools to meet the following metrics:

  • At least 35 percent of former students at an institution must be repaying their loans, defined by reducing their balance by at least one dollar per year
  • The estimate annual loan payment of a student should not be greater than 30 percent of discretionary income
  • The estimated annual loan payment should not exceed 12 percent of total earnings

While there is some leniency in the fact that schools will be put on warning should they not meet the above criteria three times in a four year period, the Gainful Employment regulation increases accountability on the part of the schools. From a financial aid perspective, colleges that have students with a debt-to-income ratio beyond the specified percentage risk losing financial aid for their students. This will surely translate into fewer enrollments, and could mean the loss of programs that are not filled to capacity.

From an accreditation perspective, colleges need to prove placement as an end result of student success. Almost all accrediting bodies assess placement rates, though in different measures, as a determining factor in a college securing and maintaining its accreditation. Again, the loss of accreditation could likely mean the loss ofenrollmentsand the departure of programs.

While colleges and universities are starting to establish and step up their career services activities, there are still tremendous opportunities to improve in this area. A well thought out and proactive approach to career services can produce the following:

    • Better Placement Results: It is about more than making sure students are qualified. Colleges and universities that take the initiative to help students prepare for the job application and interview process, as well as help students and employers connect, will increase the likelihood that their students will secure jobs.
    • Increased Retention Rates: Colleges that build relationships with employers and the community, as well as establish themselves as the go-to partner in providing qualified graduates in specific programs and fields will increase job opportunities for students. Institutions have an opportunity to become incubators for certain professions, increasing the possibility that employers will come to them directly to hire graduates. Because students know that these relationships can produce good job prospects upon graduation, they will be more likely to stay engaged in school and retained through program completion.
  • Stronger Recruitment and Enrollment: Institutions that earn a better reputation for placing graduates will be able to leverage that data in their recruitment efforts and enroll more students as a result. Higher placement rates can have a direct impact on recruitment numbers as prospective students look for schools that can help them succeed both academically and professionally.

The Future of Career Services: 
As more colleges and universities look for ways to boost career services and meet new federal regulations, as well as learn specifically what works and what doesn’t work, what can institutions expect?
Higher education is positioned for a renewed focus on career services where it will experience the following five trends:

1. Stronger Employer Relationships 
Institutions are going to be working closer with employers, communicating on a more regular basis to ensure students are acquiring the skills employers want, and employers are providing employment opportunities to qualified students from specific schools and programs. Colleges and universities will need to make it easier for employers to post job openings online and view a student’s background and resume.

2. Automated Communications 
We’ll see more proactive communications between students and a school’s career services team to make sure students can effectively market themselves to employers. We’ll also see this outreach start earlier – for example, instead of waiting until a student is one month away from graduation, the placement process might start 6 months to a year prior to graduation.

3. Dedicated Staffing 
We’ll see shift in career services organizations to include more staffing and resources dedicated to placement support. Not only will we see an increase in career services headcount, but also increase in the service level they deliver to students. Sheila Curren, author and leader in the field of student career services, hit the nail on the head when she said, “I think a fundamental change needs to take place in the way career centers are organized, and in the training that is given to career services professionals. Good career services can make a huge difference to a student’s ultimate success after graduation.”

4. More Student Self-Service Functionality 
We’ll see colleges and universities empower students to play a bigger role in the career placement process, giving them better access to resources so they can build an online profile highlighting qualifications and their resume, track job postings and opportunities, connect with employers, and apply for posted positions.

5. Increased Tracking and Measurement 
Institutions will implement the tools and technology necessary to more effectively track employer and job posting information, as well as measure placement results. Colleges and universities will identify key performance indicators (KPIs), including placement by employer, program and student; volume of job postings; and average salary and debt of graduates so they can make more informed decisions in order to provide increased support to students seeking targeted employment.

While there is little data out there that speaks to placement results across higher education, the consensus is that there is tremendous room for improvement. Colleges and universities need to set their goals higher in order to:

  • Exceed accreditation requirements
  • Stay compliant with federal regulations
  • Recruit at a higher level
  • Fulfill the obligation a college has to its students and graduates

The current economy and regulatory landscape are forcing colleges and universities to take a closer look at the level of support they deliver to students beyond the learning experience. Institutions need to take career services to the next level in order to truly support students, graduates and alumni across the education lifecycle.