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Social Innovation for the Future of College Career Education (Part 1): The Big Problem

In the field of University Career Services, the word INNOVATION has been thrown around quite a bit in the last five years... at conferences, events, in white papers, on twitter, and from specific university leaders. I have unashamedly been a proponent, and I absolutely love seeing the result of many voices leaning-in toward innovative changes for a better future for career services. Some universities are solving very large problems with a lot of creative energy, and are seeing great initial results; others are skeptical of the concept of innovation all together because they don't want to shake up a mostly good thing (understandable, but not good enough); and still others are simply using Innovation as a buzz word, or just trying to stand out among their peers as amazing (I get it, but totally disagree).

Motives aside, most universities are at the front end of the 'innovation in career services' journey and are seeing some semblance of problems, quick wins, and potential for impact.

Yet there are many wondering about the answer to this: To what end shall we innovate? Why? For what purpose are we doing this? Whatever IT is, we know it takes a commitment. It takes resources. It takes great leadership. It take change-management. It takes energy. It takes intentionality. And, we also know it is almost always worth it.

We are Innovating, But We Have a Big Problem

In the midst of this, I believe we have a very BIG PROBLEM on our hands. To some the problem is a long-time enemy they despise talk with, and for others, there is a renewed sense of hope to slay this giant. Yet, I don't think we are putting this problem on the table clearly enough, and too often we are solving its symptoms rather than its root.

Say this statement a lot at your university: 'We have a problem.' We have a problem that is large in size. The BIG PROBLEM is that we, as colleges and universities, are merely making career services available, rather than making a commitment to actually reach and influence the career preparedness of EVERY student.

This problem has many dimensions, which I will illuminate below. It can be solved...and now seems to be the opportune time in history...but the solutions are not easy or quick. And, the problem begs for a new vision - one that needs to be discussed in President's Cabinet meetings, in Council of Dean's meetings, in Directors meetings, in fundraising campaign meetings, and more.

Many upper administrators and career leaders are now dreaming of the day when, in increasing measures, their university alumni and graduates will utter the phrase, 'my university cared about my future, and prepared me for it.' In fact, they will utter the phrase so much, that it becomes part of the university brand, culture and ethos.

Of course, we must be far more sophisticated than to assume this means we would have to forsake a university mission and become a trade school to do this - we are well beyond that old liberal arts extremist argument against career preparedness, though it is important to wrestle with the notion. And of course, we must not minimize this problem to a 1st job out of college, and highlight a good placement rate, and therefore act as if we have solved the problem - we should be well beyond the 1970's placement model, though it is important as well.

Why do we need Social Innovation?

For those of you not familiar with the concept of Social Innovation, the vetted collective thoughts on Wikipedia define Social Innovation with following dimensions in mind:

  • When new strategies, concepts, ideas, and organizations are needed to strengthen causes like education, work, health, and betterment of civil society.

  • When there are multiple participants pursuing various angles to a social change

  • When new forms of cooperation are needed across the stakeholders involved

  • And, when the mental creativity needed for producing solutions will need to have a depth of fluency and flexibility from a wide-range of disciplines.

We need a new set of solutions for a new era. When we simply offer career services as available, there is a high likelihood that first generation students, underrepresented minority students, and low income students will lose. There is a high likelihood that students struggling through anxiety, depression, and addictions will lose. There is a high likelihood that adult learners, working 30+ hours per week on top of taking a FT class load, will lose. And there is a high likelihood that students with a history that lacks career mentors or career experiences will lose. We have to stop hiding this pain. We have to feel this pain and regularly talk about this pain. Our first destination results can hide it, our annual reports can hide it, but it needs to come to the forefront before one of two things happen: 1. the buyer finds out, and much greater pain comes your way, or 2. we let mediocrity win with regards to our students futures, especially with those most vulnerable to 'career education poverty'.

We must acknowledge by our actions that the career preparedness of our college graduates is a social justice issue:

  • it needs to be talked about as important as mental health;

  • it is a diversity and inclusion issue - a big one;

  • it needs to be talked about as important as academic rigor (and be part of it);

  • it needs to be talked about as important as academic advising (which is often mandatory when career education is not);

  • it needs to be known that it can impact recruitment of students and retention of students in a substantial manner.

  • it needs to be talked about as important as shiny new buildings (which are currently a 10-fold bigger financial priority than intentional career education);

  • It should be a top 5 fundraising priority (there have been more than a handful of $multi-million gifts to the cause in recent history).

Today, for the sake of preparing ALL students, we must lean in and be able to publicly say to our 'buyers' (students, parents, and donors), that we have:

  1. Intentional and integrated systems to reach and influence the career preparedness of all students

  2. Modernized and thoughtful career learning strategies that our students actually desire

  3. High standard of excellence in the staff leading career on campus; who literally have a seat at the most influential tables of the institution

  4. Clear and transparent financial priorities for intentional career preparedness (not just the unintentional reality that classes and student groups are good)

Let's unpack these four dimensions even more:


As mentioned, the model of career education at universities is almost unanimously a system that is merely offered to all students. But it needs to be one that actually reaches and influences the career preparation of all students. This lack of integrated or mandated system has historically been understood by its symptoms. Those symptoms might look like the following, all which take a lot of energy, and easily sidetrack the college from tackling the bigger issue. Here are two common symptoms, stated as myths:

  • The Myth that our staff is not big enough. If you feel understaffed in career services, it is because you are, and so are the rest of the career teams in the nation. Welcome to reality. When you realize that the math behind a primarily 1:1 appointment model doesn't scale for you to help the 30,000 students on your campus (or 12,000 - pick a number), you wake up. The problem is scale. The problem is scale. The problem is scale. Keep saying it. Career is a village effort. You do have a big enough staff, but they just don't report to the formal career office on paper. The career office staff are the conduit not the ending point.

We have to 'Redefine WE'. I have been writing and teaching and producing training about REDEFINING WE for some time now, and fully believe that we must embrace that there exists an entire career network already in play on campus - we need to help them, feed them, train them! (BTW - I love 1:1 appointments and counselors, and do not believe they should go away,. I do believe our MS and PHD educated coaches and counselors need room to deal with complex situations and need to stop spending so much time correcting comma rules on resumes.)

  • The Myth that a new tech system for X will change everything. It feels so good to get a new tech solution. I have bought many, I own career tech companies, and I have seen many staff teams light up when they purchase one. Tech solutions can scale, and can actually be quite effective to solve our Big Problem. However, the important nuance is to ask, 'to what end are you purchasing tech systems?' Are these systems solving the 'prepare all' problem? Are they helping with career preparedness? We have a high volume of really good systems in the job posting space, in the events space, in the alumni connection space, and in the CRM space, but can we please scale the expertise that is in the heads of the counselors and coaches. This will finally put career preparedness in the pockets of students. There are ways to do this. We have about 50-75 learning objectives for students, but they don't know how to access what they are supposed to learn. This has to change, and one system is not the answer. We can also go non-tech when we connect career into the curriculum and classroom in a way that honors the faculty and illuminates their work by inserting future reflections, supplemental assignments, and field experiences, but that demands another post.

PROBLEM DIMENSION 2: The Learning Paradigm Shift

Simply put, students want to learn differently today. The 'how' is changing. And you know that 'how' kills 'what' and then 'why' gets lost. I have asked at least a few thousand students on at least 50 campuses in groups of 10-100 students how they like to learn. They get 4 choices and have to rank them. Here are their choices in their order of most common preference ranking.

  • I most like to learn through hands-on experiences

  • I most like to learn through socializing (this means networking, but I use socializing to disarm them)

  • I most like to learn through meeting with experts

  • I most like to learn through technology (this one is #2 if I clarify that tech learning can happen in 5 minutes or less - they only rank it last if they think it is a full online education).

It is rare for students today to not pick #1 as their #1. They want experiences. And in most cases, once I clarify the tech learning I am talking about, then 'learning from an expert' is dead last.

But our career centers are mostly built on experts. Heck, universities are mostly built on experts. We should not dislike experts, we simply need to know what our buyers desire for how they want to learn, is changing. What if universities were to build out or capitalize on already existing scalable, hands-on experiences that better prepare our students for their future. We have great content, but may not be delivering it in the most desirable mediums, which is limiting our ability to prepare all students. We do one hour workshops at 7pm for 6 students - a waste of time. Rather, we can come alongside study abroad, alternative spring break, and other powerful learning experiences and insert pre and post reflective activities that tie their experience to their future career pursuits. Career Treks are exploding. But they serve so few. We can scale our career treks--I have seen solutions created in 1 hour to do this. We need creative energy around this. Don't settle and say, we just had a one neat road trip with 24 students. Don't settle and say, workshops will work someday. Celebrate the good, eliminate the bad, and don't settle! Listen to the buyers.

PROBLEM DIMENSION 3: The Leadership Commitment

The leadership commitment to career preparedness on campus should be two-fold. First, career has to be a campus priority with upper-administrators actively synchronizing career into their processes, regularly acknowledging that we are solving a big problem that takes integration into the full student life-cycle. Second, there needs to be a leader of career education for the campus with VP attributes, if not with a VP title. We can get way too wrapped up in title comparisons and miss the fact that career should not be run by committee and the leader needs be turned loose as a savvy systems thinker that acts as an external executive and rolls up multiple metrics and outcomes to the Cabinet and Deans on behalf of the complex campus, further being charged with integrating career in a way that reaches every student. There are many super-star leaders poised to step into these growing and important leadership roles, and many campuses who realized the benefits of elevating the priority of such roles.

A lot of people are asking where Career Services should report: Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, The President, Advancement, Enrollment Management, become its own division (this is happening) - all are viable options. We can't deny the mass exodus we are all seeing out of reporting to student affairs in the last 5 years. Regardless, it must be known that Career Education is campus wide, not just an office among 50 others that sees students. Career also interacts with every stakeholder, not just students. It therefore cannot be treated as a transactional counseling-like office (and need not act like one either). It is okay if one division needs to focus on other priorities so career can go elsewhere to accomplish these broader systemic goals. Whatever works to provide holistic, substantial, and quality career preparedness to ALL students.

This is social innovation for the future careers well-being of thousands of your alumni, and we need leaders who are passionately committed to this cause.

PROBLEM DIMENSION 4: The Financial Priority

Once parents understand that most of the time less than 1% of the university budget is allocated toward intentional career preparation, then I think our big problem will get even more real for us. Certainly we must think beyond the career center, but when an operating budget for a career center is $400,000 (including staff) and the cost of yearly tuition for the 12,000 students attending is $25,000 a year, that commitment of 0.013% of the annual budget is horrendous and unacceptable. There are other financial commitment areas. Add them up. Our career related finances at universities have to be put on the financial values transparency stage. Open the books. Simply stating at parent orientation that we have a career center has pacified parents for now, but the ROI undercurrent has not gone away, and is getting bigger. I am nervous for us. As I share this financial reality with parents, they often lose their mind, immediately saying with exasperation, 'what? do you know how much I am paying for that degree?.' I'd like to advocate that 5-7% of the university budget go toward intentional career preparedness. If we are coordinated and smart with that investment, we could transform the workforce and the economy of the future as a result.

I was recently on a project for a Provost, and asked a student focus group of 10 students at a big state school how they might feel about adding a $10 per credit hour career services fee ($120-$170 per semester) if it resulted in the best career preparation in the nation for them. They didn't know this would provide about $3.7 million a year in additional money toward a career movement on campus. They thought I was joking and said things like, "that price is way too low...that can't possibly buy us the best in the nation." They started to negotiate 'how about $20 per credit hour". Then one asked, why I was asking them and what they were missing out on by not paying the $150-ish fee (which by the way is the cost of 1 professional career counseling appointment outside of the university). I rattled off a list of about 15-20 items they could experience or learn at different junctions in their student life-cycle experience. They got mad and literally vented for about 5 minutes about why they weren't offered those items during their tenure. I was pretty surprised at their emotions about this topics. Students today love career development, and are passionate about spending wisely on their future. We deserve to be held accountable by them.

Let this underscore two items. First, it doesn't take much money to make a massive social change for the workforce of tomorrow. Second, like many impoverished societal issues at their beginning stages, the end users are somewhat blind to the fact that they are missing out on a brighter future. We need to open their eyes and then show them how much we can help ALL of them.

Social Innovation is What We all Want

In talking with many leaders, I have learned that social innovation for career education is actually what we all want...and it is starting to take hold...we are acknowledging the problem. Nothing transformative can come as a flash in the pan, or a quick solution. We all want thoughtful and careful solutions to solve this issue. We all want positive experiences and stories that shape the future of students. We all care about their futures, but perhaps don't know how to operationalize that care in a manner that is scalable and courageous. But I am convinced that our ability to do this is at its height, our buy-in from politicians, faculty, parents and presidents is ripe, and thus the potential is bigger than it has ever been in history.

Happy 'social' innovating!

Jeremy Podany is an innovation, leadership, and organization growth connoisseur who has helped nearly 1,000 organizations and 500 leaders, having nearly 40 leadership roles in the last 20 years. Jeremy has enjoyed a career in higher education, has helped build six unique start-ups, and is currently the Founder, CEO, and Senior Consultant of The Career Leadership Collective and Co-Owner of The Fairs App. He regularly consults for universities to help them find the right leaders and weave career education into the fabric of the campus. Last year The Career Leadership Collective did business with 300 universities and saw 20,000 people from 30 countries engage their online content.

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