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Replacing “Services” with “Engagement”

What happens when a Research I university granting almost 7,000 bachelor’s degrees each year commits that every undergraduate, regardless of major, will experience learning that makes their studies relevant to their career aspirations, allows that student to start to make a mark on the world while still in college, and develops the skills most valued in the world of work?

At the University of Arizona, we’ve implemented 100% Engagement, now in its second year of operation, to demonstrate that what happens is not only a new level of workforce readiness among graduates, but also a new approach to talent development that integrates the efforts of our Career Education, Employer and Alumni Engagement and Leadership Programs staff into the multiple priorities of the campus. In this post, I’ll share some of the driving principles of the initiative and lessons learned in the hope that something here resonates in a way that supports your own efforts to change the narrative and practices related to career development on your campus.

Learning Happens Everywhere

If you’ve helped students prepare their resumes and interviews, you know that often the most impactful learning experiences of a student’s undergraduate career take place outside the traditional classroom, and these may or may not be experiences for which the student earned academic credit. And yet traditionally higher education institutions have treated these experiences as an optional side dish rather than as one of the key components of the banquet we’re offering the students and families who invest in their education with us.

One key innovation of the 100% Engagement initiative was that the UA formally acknowledged the student’s lived experience of college as a place where the traditional classroom is just one of several potential practice grounds for the intellectual and personal development that moves the student toward their aspirations. We send a powerful message when we differentiate the UA experience in our promise to students of resume-worthy skill-building experiences and then follow through by acknowledging those meaningful experiences within their transcript and student record even if they do not directly to contribute to completing the degree a student will ultimately list in the Education section of that resume.

And when we acknowledge that these experiences have value everywhere they occur, and that we expect every student to have them and reflect upon them, we diffuse responsibility for career development throughout the institution; academic departments and colleges, student affairs units, even university IT, facilities management, retail operations are all supported to intentionally design experiences to support students in integrating learning, developing skills, stretching themselves to take actions and achieve outcomes that may not be laid out in syllabus of steps and due dates.

The Center Gives Way to Something Bigger

If career development on a university campus occurs everywhere as an essential driver of Student Engagement, it occurs nowhere exclusively and this creates new conversations about the role of career educators as providers of resources, including reflective assignments that can be embedded into these in- and out-of-class experiences, as trainers and subject matter experts who build capacity and effectiveness in colleagues who work directly with students in the places those students naturally seek experience and guidance.

For example, I transfer almost 20% of the budget provided by the university for Student Engagement, the department which includes the artist formerly known as Career Services as well as Leadership Programs and the Office of Student Engagement that coordinates the 100% Engagement initiative, to the Colleges to support them in developing engaged learning experiences and career education resources. We will renew this funding annually based on progress toward mutually agreed upon engaged learning and career development goals specific to the context in each College. The staff supported by this funding report locally in the College, which adapts the job description and responsibilities of the staff to their particular context and goals.

This diffusion of resources and responsibilities will play out in our adoption of a new career services management platform and our plans for the first time on our campus to provide equal access to that system to all professionals on campus involved in career development and employer engagement, regardless of their lines of report.

Building the Story Beyond Major

One of the biggest opportunities presented by 100% Engagement is to collectively tell a better story about career outcomes and the actionable factors beyond a student’s choice of major that drive those outcomes.

Major has long served as a proxy signal for finer points of data related to student interests and skills, and I would argue, for a student’s level of exposure within curriculum and departmental student services to the ins and outs of how to present themselves on the college job market. Employers increasingly seek more accurate signals of what students can do and how they apply their learning.

Competencies and skills that matter regardless of a student’s major attach to each of the 100% Engagement experiences. The premise is that a student with these competencies plus some technical skills developed within or unbundled from any academic major will be prepared to step into a future that may include graduate school and likely will also include work for companies and organizations in non-academic functions. As students learn to highlight these cross-cutting competencies and seek them out in their experiences, we unbundle preparation for careers from the disciplinary silos which do not carry over t

o the working world for the vast majority of students who major in fields other than those that tie in to practical licensure or certification, such as Engineering, Nursing, Accounting or Finance.

We’re also engaging alumni and employers to create non-credit 100% Engagement experiences in particular technical skills. Among other examples, this summer we’ll launch a digital marketing boot camp in partnership with an alumnus whose team at the consultancy he runs created a curriculum in which students will build a portfolio showing their skills in utilizing the tools required in real entry level jobs in the industry.

To use an analogy presented by Burning Glass in a recent demo of their latest products designed to give universities insight into skill demands for program development, it’s the Mr. Potato Head model of career development. Completing a degree in a particular major is the just the potato, and a student puts together their game face by intentionally selecting course and experiences that layer particular skills on top of that base.

While 70-80% of employers recruiting on our campus do not limit applications based upon major, because we organize undergraduate education around these disciplinary silos we have traditionally segmented reports of our immediate student outcomes data according to majors. To help build a cohesive narrative about the career outcomes valued by students and parents that goes beyond choosing a major and expecting that choice to result in a particular outcome, we’ve transferred administration of the Career Destinations Survey to our research unit and have made a conscious effort to connect it across the university, tying it into the tradition of RSVP for Commencement as well as college convocations and encouraged department heads, academic advisors and others involved in student graduation planning to incorporate survey administration into those processes.

For the first time, we’re creating a transparent dashboard within our system of student records that will allow all administrators with student data permissions to filter, analyze and report on aggregate outcomes survey data. Eventually the survey data will be linked to factors including number and type of engaged learning experiences completed, reported internships, and student participation in career development programming and skill-building experiences. The goal is to provide students and parents and also academic departments with actionable information about the factors beyond choice of major that determine outcomes.

In this way, career development also becomes integrated into an academic Colleges’ and departments’ enrollment planning and their ability to drive the enrollments to realize that plan. In an institution where funding flows according to a responsibility centered management financial model, the ability to tell a story about outcomes to drive appropriate enrollments is critical to the success of liberal arts and sciences departments. But that’s content for another post.

Just Getting Started

We’ve made a lot of progress in the two years of operation of 100% Engagement. In May 2016, 34.6% of graduates had received the official notation on their transcript. This May, we expect 65% to graduate with the notation, and we’re aiming for 85% of 2018 graduates. Counting these experiences is only the beginning.

Data regarding engaged learning experiences completed and participation in career and leadership education programming will also be uploaded into our university’s predictive analytics software, to help us develop better insight into the factors that predict positive graduate school and career outcomes. These insights can help inform personalization of our inventions that will be most uniquely helpful to UA students, and ultimately lead us toward our goal of making our graduates the most competitive in the marketplace, returning value to the families and public who invest in our institution.

Abra McAndrew serves as Assistant Vice Provost, Student Engagement, and leads a number of SAEM/AISS's key engagement areas, including Career Services, Leadership Programs, the Office of Student Engagement, Innovation Programs, and Undergraduate Research. She provides vision and leadership in developing a nationally-recognized, sustainable strategy for growth of engaged learning on the campus and works to expand the division's capacity to deliver high quality, scaled engaged learning opportunities to students. Her educational background includes a Bachelor’s degree from Smith College, a Master’s in English and Linguistics from the University of Arizona’s College of Humanities, and an MBA from the Eller College of Management. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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