Increasing Career Engagement on Your Unique Campus

Over the last ten years, higher education has felt the increased pressure to tell their story of success, through transparency and data about the outcomes of their graduates. Many asked, was an investment in college really worth it for a growing number of Americans going to college and bearing its cost? I spent most of those 10 years as the Executive Director of the Career Center at Pepperdine, where, like many campuses and career centers, reporting more robust first-destination outcomes was the first step in responding to this pressure. Now, in my new role as the Online Learning Lead for The Career Leadership Collective, I see how initiatives like The National Alumni Career Mobility Survey will add more depth to that story of success. But as data unlocks insights, new questions always emerge:

  • How do we improve the volume of students with positive career outcomes?

  • What student behaviors lead to increased results?

  • How could EVERY student find post-graduation success?

Many campus leaders and career services offices have turned these questions into goals. At Pepperdine, we found that those goals, though noble, often seemed overwhelming. One insight that helped us, was acknowledging that it was okay to grow incrementally, as long as we were keeping the big picture in mind.

The Pepperdine model is still unfolding and, of course, is unique, just like your model and culture are unique.

Here are six steps to increasing career engagement on your campus:

1. Understand your unique campus needs and opportunities.

If you haven’t already, review your service and outcomes data to identify who are you NOT serving. And if possible, try to gain insight as to why? Use this insight to identify areas where you might achieve short-term wins, even while you’re navigating long-term shifts of your campus-wide system.

At Pepperdine, we had a solid model that we knew worked, but we were concerned about the 40% of students not engaging with career services and those who were not successfully launching after graduation. We also knew we wouldn’t be able to significantly increase our staff headcount, so our options were to grow incrementally, leverage new tools to help us scale, and test concepts in the short term, while navigating the process of curriculum approval. The challenge was not necessarily developing curriculum or even explaining its value. The challenge was scaling career education and securing campus-wide advocates who would help us extend our reach.

2. Start where you are and with what you have.

What tools, practices, and partnerships work well in your community, but don’t have the reach you want? How can you build from there rather than trying to be like another school? How can you scale current offerings?

At Pepperdine we acknowledged what skills our college-wide curriculum already addressed and focused on the gaps. For nearly 18 years, Pepperdine has hosted a semester-long coaching program for students who want to opt-in to the career development process. The program always produces high levels of positive career outcomes for participants and is celebrated as a flagship offering of the department. We adapted this proven curriculum and focused on substantively overlaying it with classes that enrolled students we would otherwise not reach (athletes, men, LatinX, first-year, undecided students, etc.).

As we began to explore what scaling meant for our small Liberal Arts college, we were encouraged that many characteristics desired by employers, mirrored the outcomes of a liberal education. This gave us the freedom to focus exclusively on our areas of specialty, career management and planning, and overall professional preparedness.

3. Learn about different career education models.

There is no one right way to build a career education strategy at your school. Below are some of the most common approaches colleges employ, and in many cases, they may use a hybrid strategy.

  • Career Courses - stand-alone or integrated by major; elective or required

  • Online career courses or certifications - elective and required

  • Faculty and staff career training or certifications

  • Career passport or graduation requirements

  • Identity-specific programs - athletes, students of color, academic subsets, clubs/orgs etc.