Universities Aren’t Doing Their Jobs: Evolving Beyond the Career Center
The American Dream, which goes something like “work hard and you’ll earn a better life,” is arguably the cornerstone of our society. That dream has evolved into, “work hard, go to college, get a good job.” And yet, universities are notably and curiously poor at preparing students for transitioning to the workforce.
University attendance and student debt are skyrocketing while outcomes are dropping. In a time of rapid technological change, I believe these forces are converging and will fundamentally alter the way students interact with their careers, passions, and schools. This thought piece explores the roots of the problem, the current state of affairs, and how technology will displace the university as the bridge from education to work.
Would You Take Career Advice From a Monk?
How did we get here? Remember that universities weren’t created for the purpose of preparing tradespeople. They were originally created for religious education and later evolved into research institutions to support academic pursuits. Interestingly, both of those “careers” have the idiosyncratic phenomenon of a lifetime job guarantee — very different from how the world that most of us live in works. It’s not surprising then that most schools shy away from deeply preparing its students to transition into the professional world.
This is not to call into question the entire American university system, a complex subject with pros/cons that would require a dissertation, not an opinion. Rather, the goal is to point out that universities are poorly suited to provide the primary benefit for which most students attend — a better vocational path.
Over the last 50 years, demand for this benefit has coincided with the rise of increased “administration” at universities and so the university career center was born.
State of the World
Today, 77% of students graduate without a job. Further, <5% of students receive jobs via their career center.
Re-read those stats. Most people are shocked to see the harsh reality. Surely this can’t be your school, right? Sadly, even many of our nation’s best schools have single digit placement rates. How does this happen?
Most career centers are understaffed, underfunded, and poorly equipped to prepare students for post-college lives. They sit out of sight, in a building students would never choose to enter. Their priorities and processes are driven by administrative professionals who have internal political agendas and often don’t fully understand the private sector.
Some schools, whether because of elite status, geographic relevance, or industry specialization, have inbound interest from a narrow subset of employers. These schools mostly focus on designing processes which those captive employers must follow in order to engage with their campus (including job fairs, resume deadlines, and interview days). They supplement this with resume reviews, a job board, a poorly kept alumni database, and some pamphlets on career advice.
Those employers represent the aforementioned jobs that cover <5% of the population. The rest of the campus ends up feeling rejected and lost. At most schools, ~10–15% of students ever engage with the career center. Amongst those that do, most do not qualify for the ‘good’ jobs that are posted at the school, never mind the question of whether the creative writing major actually wants to be an accountant. They are left feeling scared and shattered, likely encountering the weight of rejection and the uncertainty of adulthood for the first time. Most disengage entirely and as the stats show, graduate without a job.
Well, the career counsellors must be able to help those students, right? Contrary to popular belief, very little actual advice is shared at a career center. Remember how many students there are and the dynamics of an underfunded staff. I’d draw the analogy of a guidance counselor at a 5,000 person high school.
Eventually these students do find a job. The unemployment rate for recent graduates is ~10%. That’s not good, but better than the 77% who graduate without a job. The sad part of this story is that people end up taking whatever job they can find because they need money. Of course this job is unlikely to be a good long-term match for their passions and as a result the average first job tenure for university grads is less than 9 months. We end up with a labor force that’s underemployed, with limited career skills, drowning in debt, and hating what they do.
The status quo is unlikely to persist. Many predict that we will see a decline by as much as 30% of the 5,000 US universities. Some believe that credential-oriented and online-based education will become more widespread. I buy both of those predictions.
Further, employers are sick of spending 3x the cost of a normal hire for a campus hire and a poor outcome and will find ways to leverage technology to do better. For example, Goldman Sachs, an iconic campus recruiter, recently ended its on-campus recruiting program and is using a technology-based system for screening initial candidates.
The world is changing and I believe that how a university education’s core deliverable is performed is changing along with it. The bridge from education to work is such a massive market that technology companies who are much better suited to solve the problem will pick up the ball that universities have dropped. We see this already with value-added talent funnels replacing traditional recruiters with companies such as Hired and TheMuse driving change within the general hiring market. Additionally, bootcamps like General Assembly are providing much of the credentialing bridge that schools do not. We believe that technology companies will replace universities as the place that students trust to help them find their path and start their career.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to schools. Every time I talk to a trustee of a university, they cite career transition as a core concern. Yet, a nuanced understanding of the problem is required if they are to succeed in solving the problem. Far too often, university career centers seek to ‘control’ their process, setting rules by which employers can gain access to their system. As a result, they naturally adopt workflow-oriented software to help ease this administrative burden and “control process.” Companies such as Symplicity and Handshake are notable names providing this service.
And yet, while these tools can be helpful to schools and they should use them, in the end they are anti-disruptive, seeking to reinforce existing operations of a fundamentally flawed system. They aren’t nearly enough.
Am I predicting the downfall of career services at schools? No, of course not. Universities cannot be seen as ignoring the core needs of their students completely and bureaucracies have a way of perpetuating themselves. I am predicting that their role will evolve to helping students use these powerful tools that will become available to them.
My company, Vocate, is such a tool. Our product is focused on taking students on a guided journey which helps them discover their interests, matches them to the professional world, and arms them with the introductions, information, support, and tools they need to realize their dreams.
In all cases, we work directly with students and employers. We don’t require a university’s blessing to solve this problem for them. In some cases, either because of foresight or necessity, thought leaders have emerged at schools who have embraced this change and worked with us to the great advantage of their students. Sadly, we also find administrators who want to fight this change and attempt to cling to “control” as a primary objective. We feel that this approach puts the needs of their students behind those of institutional politics and risks a school falling out of step with a change that’s happening whether they like it or not.
Alex Tonelli is the CEO and Founder of Vocate, an online student career center featuring a matching market for jobs and internships. He has founded three prior successful companies, most notably including Funding Circle US, the largest global marketplace for small business loans. As of Feb 2017, Vocate operates at 32 schools.