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The Untapped Potential of Campus Employment

American college students are working more than ever. According to a 2015 Georgetown University report, 70-80% percent of undergraduates are employed, and 40% of those students work full-time, making work the most time-consuming activity beyond academic study.

At Bennington College, we recognized this trend as an opportunity to enhance student support and increase retention, prompting us to rebuild campus employment with a focus on career education. This rebuild meant an overhaul of our old approach and a deep dive into the latest research. It was a substantial undertaking, but after a crash course in the field and a campus-wide revisioning process, campus employment is now at the center of our strategy to build an ecosystem around networks of student support.

Bennington College is a small, liberal arts school in southern Vermont that is distinguished by its historic emphasis on experiential and work-based learning. Our students are required to complete a six week field work experience every year as an academic requirement. Despite our appreciation for the learning value of work, student employment remained in a silo until recently, reinforcing an unspoken dichotomy between work-for-learning and work-for-pay. Those work-learning experiences (internships, REUs, apprenticeships, start-up ventures, etc.) were integrated into our academic structures, metrics, and pedagogy. Still, student employment trailed behind, lacking centralized oversight and intentionality, causing both student and employer dissatisfaction.

Our goal was to integrate both types of student work into the career education experience to enhance campus-wide support, maximize learning, and expand future opportunities.

This project gained steam when, in 2017, the Lumina Foundation brought together institutions across sectors to focus on creating equity and access through work-integrated learning. Through this process, we had the chance to talk with other colleges and universities that had already built campus employment into or alongside career development. It allowed us to learn from models that were working in other places and to recognize the limits of our approach.

Inspired by the work of Stony Brook University, Clemson University, and others, we ultimately embarked on a multi-pronged strategy for change that included institutional revisioning; a campus employment advisory group; and a year-long process of overhauling policies, procedures, and systems to align with national best practices.

Here’s a bit of what we’ve learned in the process.

Campus employment can:

  1. Enhance learning: In the 2018 book A Good Job: Campus Employment as a High-Impact Practice, the authors contend that campus employment structures are well-positioned to reinforce the learning outcomes of high-impact practices, including active learning, guided reflection, structured mentoring, and intercultural competency. Borrowing from the Iowa GROW model, we are engaging a pilot cohort of students in structured reflection on campus work as it relates to academic and professional development goals. Initially, this guided reflection helps students clarify goals, build mentoring support, and reveal connections between classroom and hands-on learning.

  2. Improve competencies: For the 70-80% of US undergraduates who work while attending school, work-readiness competencies identified by NACE and Hart Research are gained not only through internships and other field work but also through the jobs they hold to support themselves. Knowing this, we decided to replicate our student self-assessments and employer evaluations (modeled on the NACE competencies) within the campus employment setting. Though we are in the initial data collection phase, we are already seeing strong correlations between competencies across internships and campus jobs. For example, our students score very high on leadership but low on certain aspects of professionalism, such as punctuality. In an area like the dining hall—the largest employer on campus with the highest worker attrition—we have set up a referral system in which students with repeat lateness or absences are referred to us for coaching on time management and professionalism, as well as referrals to broader psychosocial and academic supports.

  3. Strengthen career ecosystems: Campus jobs are one arena in which faculty, staff, and students can come together with a shared goal for student success. One example of this model on our campus is the IT department, which has an interest in upgrading the caliber of help desk technician support and creating pathways for student advancement. To support this goal, we partnered with the IT department to offer career education workshops, such as preparing for programming interviews or translating liberal arts education into tech employment. Computer science faculty reinforce employer communication skills in individual and group advising, and this model includes a feedback loop from faculty to the student worker managers. With this multi-directional support in place, students have formed a student-led tech jobs group.

  4. Create scale: With elective workshops on campus, we’re lucky to see 20 students, even when we host these workshops in popular hangout spots and entice students with pizza. Student employment allows us to require all students to attend orientation sessions where we have control of the content. For example, we added a first-year student employee orientation with 100% attendance that covered topics such as professional expectations, handling workplace issues, talking with employers, and working as a member of a team.

  5. Increase marketability: The best PR is happy students. And research from the Lumina Foundation demonstrates that students who work on campus twenty hours per week or less report higher levels of engagement with their environment and have higher grades on average. Moreover, employers are more likely to hire graduates with internship experience because of the T-shaped professional characteristics they build. Extending this to campus employment, students can be coached to understand and convey the learning value of their campus jobs on their resumes, e-portfolios, and in interviews just as they do with internships and research. On our campus, one successful strategy has been to get students in the door for campus employment help sessions (advertised to help students find paid work) and use these sessions as an entry point to talk about polishing their presentation to gain a competitive edge. These benefits have already proven attractive to prospective families and institutional partners.

Faith McClellan is Director of Career Development and Field Work Term at Bennington College. Faith holds an MPA from the NYU Wagner School and a BA from Brown University. Prior to higher education, Faith gained 15 years of nonprofit management and partnership building experience, including co-founding a workforce development program in Brooklyn, NY, managing a social change leadership project for the Ford Foundation, and helping to launch a college-credit leadership development program. With a passion for building innovative programming, vibrant employer and alumni connections, and faculty advising partnerships, Faith aims to empower students with the tools and networks needed to craft satisfying and ambitious careers.

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