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.
Campus Influencer Model - empowering campus partners to integrate, champion and deliver career education
4. Incremental growth is still growth.
Design thinking encourages us to listen first (look at your data, listen to constituents, identify pain points), learn, test, and grow over time. Test out different strategies that don’t require university approval or a whole year of planning. Engage campus influencers and advocates as early partners in testing. Bite-size a solution, prototype, implement, learn, and then start the process over, or figure out how to scale. This can empower you to make short-term progress even at an institution that grows slow.
At Pepperdine, we began by benchmarking models at other institutions, seeking to understand how others were approaching this demand for change. Equipped with that research, we identified technology tools that would help us increase student self-service options in career exploration, resume review, interviewing, and alumni networking. We then translated our historic curriculum into various formats that could be either offered directly to enrolled students or that could be overlaid with an existing course.
5. Build infrastructure to scale as you grow.
Identify ‘two-fer’ tools that provide immediate short-term benefit to opt-in service users and position your campus to scale offerings down the road. For example, a student can now get immediate resume feedback 24:7 and a career course professor can save time reviewing resumes for a grade. Pair your short and long-term goals to help get funding and continue forward movement. Identify positions and partnerships that you don’t have, but will need later, and put them on the radar of your supervisor.
At Pepperdine, we partnered with faculty to embed this curriculum and sought provisional status to teach the individual course. We offered six different sections of the course, in varied formats and captured data from each to measure impact and growth. The course is currently going through the approval process to be formally added to the catalog. Once added, the career center will continue to advocate for deeper adoption into the overall college curriculum, either as part of the general education requirement, or a prerequisite for internships and other professional activities. This process can be slow, but the infrastructure established will have both short-term and long-term impact.
6. Collect simple data for continuous improvement.
What data do you need to help make the case for continued growth on campus? How do you measure career readiness or the success of your career education initiatives? For each student? For each class? Across your campus as a whole? If you can define, capture and measure the same data for all - you can compare data sets, and tell distinct and unifying stories of success.
At Pepperdine, we set up baseline career readiness questions that we asked of graduating seniors. When we started to offer first-year career classes and other in-depth programming, we asked the same questions in a pre- and post-test format which gave us benchmark and comparative data to easily gage impact.
Most importantly, don’t be discouraged! The beauty of acting fast, but growing slow, is that incremental growth is still growth. After a year of work, you may feel like you’re not getting there fast enough, but in 2-3 years time, you can expect that the fruit of your efforts will not only transform how you engage your campus community in career education, but it will be life-changing for each additional student that you reach.
Online Learning Lead
The Career Leadership Collective
Amy speaks and consults on navigating organizational change, branding and storytelling, scaling services, and leveraging community partnerships. During her nine years as Executive Director of the Career Center at Pepperdine, she focused on career education for the liberal arts, through faculty partnerships, alumni engagement, technology implementation, and integrated career readiness curriculum.
Adams has served the profession on various committees addressing conference content, diversity and inclusion, emerging industry trends, and leadership development. In 2018, Adams co-authored “The Storytelling Imperative,” published in AAC&U’s Liberal Education as well as a white paper called “Outcomes of a Liberal Arts Education: A Response on Career Preparation from the Consortium of Liberal Arts and Independent Colleges,” in 2014.
Amy previously served as the Director of Library Advancement and Public Relations and a Manager of Special Events at Pepperdine. She graduated from Pepperdine with a BA in Public Relations in 2002 an MBA in Organizational Leadership in 2008.
Adams loves championing individuals and organizations as they strive to reach their fullest potential. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for a local non-profit, providing organizational and strategic oversight for financial, staffing, expansion and fundraising efforts. In her free time, she loves adventuring with her husband and daughters in Southern California and beyond.
You can contact Amy at: firstname.lastname@example.org