A seismic change is occurring in higher education. Some schools are not surviving, and only the innovative are thriving. To stay competitive, schools need to prove their worth to an increasingly skeptical audience. Career services can be on the front lines of that fight. Those with the ability to meet the needs of their students and alumni at scale have the competitive advantage.
Our team at Switchboard has talked to a lot of career services professionals. They have all one thing in common: they’re busy. There are too many students and alumni to help and too little time. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that, on average, one career services counselor serves over 800 students, nevermind the support offered to alumni.
Years ago, it became clear that no matter how many one-on-one meetings you have or events you host, there’s no way that traditional methods can help all the students and alumni who need it at scale. The math doesn’t pencil out.
One-on-one meetings over Skype can take place remotely, but they’re still one-on-one. Virtual networking events can bring people together from across the globe without having to fly everyone back to campus, but they aren’t any larger than in-person schmoozes. And mentorship platforms can facilitate more connections, but doing so takes a tremendous amount of staff time.
We’ve learned valuable lessons from this “first generation” of digital career services tools. Too often the technology replicates in the digital realm the same challenges we face in the physical one. These tools have conquered distance, but they haven’t solved the problem of scale. And that means thousands of students and alumni who need help are still going without it.
The longer its students and alumni go without being served, the more vulnerable an institution’s reputation. That pent-up demand and frustration can create a number of problems:
Students and families have become increasingly more hesitant to enroll in higher education institutions without demonstrated return on investment. As a result, enrollment suffers.
With one in three freshman a first-generation student, higher ed’s retention revenue partly depends on those students’ ability to find professional opportunities throughout their education so they can afford to pursue a degree. Without this support, students drop out.
Increasingly, alumni will give only if they consider their degree to have lifelong value. Alumni incomes and giving rates are vital to the survival of colleges and universities, and career services can have an enormous impact on both statistics. Disappointed alumni don’t give.
The task can sound daunting: millions of students, parents, and alumni demanding support and on the brink of disaffection. Addressing this need is an urgent problem of our time. The tremendous challenge—and opportunity—we face is learning how to scale career services’ work in this turbulent environment.
Learning from the Best
For an example of a digital platform that has solved the problem of scale, we turn to the world of computer programming.
StackOverflow was founded in 2008 to give programmers a place to turn for help when they get stumped on a coding problem. Almost 7 million developers use it today. There’s not a single community more obsessed with scale than Silicon Valley and its offshoots. The $58 billion venture capital industry depends on companies achieving it.
The mechanics of the StackOverflow site are simple. A user posts a question. When someone knows the solution, they can post an answer. Other users can chime in on the comments. Many hands make light work of seemingly difficult questions. The original poster can mark the answer that worked for them as the ‘accepted’ answer.
And then—here’s the key—that question and answer lives on in perpetuity.
Nobody has to ask the same question again. If someone has that question in the future, they can search for it on StackOverflow. Collectively, the millions—yes, millions—of questions and answers on StackOverflow form an enormously valuable library of solutions, a braintrust, for coders. That’s why StackOverflow is one of the top 50 most visited sites on the internet.
As a career services professional who answers repeat questions all the time, you can immediately see the value in having this kind of braintrust. Never again would you have to spend half an hour drafting an email to direct one student to the same resources you just sent another student to the week before. Never again would you lose access to the connections created during a networking event. Every solution would live on in an archive accessible to anyone else with the same question.
Open up that ask and answer process to thousands of students and alumni, and you have a thriving, helpful community that scales. It would not just be a one-off digital event or conversation—it would be a career solution crowdsourcing engine that helps thousands of students and alumni with a fraction of the time investment on your end. Its value would only increase over time as it accumulated solutions and recruited more and more users from your institution’s network. In time, this network would become your institution’s competitive advantage. Every question answered would contribute to your constituents’ career success and strengthen your institution in the long-term.
A crowdsourced community demonstrates the value of your network to all of the most important constituencies: students, families, alumni, university leadership, and your advancement office.
Creating a Network of Opportunity at Oberlin
One of our partner schools, Oberlin College, is an example of a school that has created a career solution crowdsourcing network akin to StackOverflow. It’s worked so well for them that they won a CASE Circle of Excellence Gold Award for their efforts in 2016.
Their network boasts over 2500 users and thousands of questions and answers. Here’s an example from Dorothy, who was seeking advice on how to write an application to apply for a Watson Fellowship, which requires her to develop contacts across the globe for a year abroad.
She connected with three Oberlin alumni who had suggestions and connections for her. It’s a triple bottom line win. The institution is credited as a facilitator for helping Dorothy make these connections, Dorothy is on the path to post-graduate success, and prospective students and families see tangible evidence of a network that works.
Adam DuVander, the Alumni Board President at Willamette University, sums up the importance of scale in this 40 second video he narrated for our team at Switchboard:
Scalable digital solutions are an easy way to reach the students and alumni who need help but aren’t receiving it. They amplify the value the institution provides. We are passionate about crowdsourcing and scaling career services to meet the needs of students and alumni, and we encourage you to consider with your staff teams how you can scale and crowdsource your expertise.
Mara Zepeda is co-founder and CEO of Switchboard, the award-winning alumni networking platform. Switchboard connects students and alumni to their alma mater and a network of opportunity at the same time. All connections and career successes on Switchboard are tracked so you can effortlessly share your progress with your colleagues. Schools like Williams, MIT, Oberlin, Denison, and William & Mary use Switchboard to accelerate alumni careers and foster alumni mentorship. Prior to co-founding Switchboard in 2014, Mara worked at Harvard, sojourned as a radio reporter for NPR and Marketplace, and served on the alumni board of her alma mater, Reed College.