Imagine a future in which every college student is engaged with career development and graduates with the confidence and preparation to pursue a purposeful life and career. In many career services offices and across our campuses, this ambition drives us to think not only about the quality and depth of our programs, but also about scale. How many of our students are we reaching? Are we reaching them in the ways that will make the most difference in their preparation? How do we know?
At the University of Denver (DU), a private research university with approximately 12,000 students, including approximately 6,000 undergraduates, engaging as many students as possible in meaningful career development activities is a top priority. Our largest, centralized Career & Professional Development office (CPD) takes the lead on student engagement efforts in close partnership with the business, international affairs, law, and social work career teams on campus that are part of our hybrid model (partly centralized, partly decentralized). During the 2021-22 academic year, we engaged more than 74% of undergraduate students, exceeding our goal for the year of 70% unique/unduplicated undergraduate student engagement.
DU’s 4D Experience is a strategic imperative and an institution-wide commitment that students will learn across four dimensions: intellectual growth and curiosity, careers and lives of purpose, well-being, and character and values, aided and supported by a constellation of mentors and advisers. With careers and lives of purpose as one of the dimensions and an institution-wide area of focus, the approach to career preparation at DU has evolved steadily over the past half-dozen years. CPD addresses the dimension of careers and lives of purpose through both alignment of the CPD mission with the overall institutional vision for the 4D Experience, and through programs and services that support students in fulfilling this dimension.
Launched in 2019 under the leadership of Chancellor Jeremy Haefner, the 4D Experience grows out of a strategic plan for DU’s future. When the strategic plan was initially implemented in 2016, the CPD team shifted in reporting line from student affairs to advancement, with a vision for more integrated lifecycle support for students as they prepared for careers and made the transition to their post-graduate endeavors, as well as for alumni as their career and educational paths unfold. The 2016-17 academic year also marked the first year in which DU collected data on student engagement with career development activities, reaching an overall undergraduate student engagement total of 47.4%. In addition, DU aligned early with the NACE first-destination outcomes data collection standards, reporting on career outcomes based on the NACE standards starting with the Class of 2017.
One of the bold goals identified for 2025 was engaging 90% of undergraduate students in career development. In pursuit of this goal, the CPD team has led rapid growth and change since beginning engagement and outcomes tracking six years ago.
Two critical structural and mindset shifts that set the stage for future results were the establishment of a strong data practice focused on tracking, analyzing, and reporting both student engagement and post-graduate outcomes that is centralized within CPD, and a shift in focus with the advising teams to an ecosystem approach. In this approach, each adviser liaises with specific academic areas as well as with student organizations in order to reach students where they are, to reach groups of students with information and encouragement, and to support students individually through appointments.
Approach and Interventions
To build toward the very ambitious goal of 90% undergraduate engagement annually, CPD has taken a multipronged approach. This includes refining our data practice, changing our advising systems and programs, leveraging our alumni community—possible because of our integration in the advancement division—providing classroom-to-career integrations, and developing and enhancing other interventions that drive large-scale engagement.
At DU, we define engagement with career development as at least one interaction with a career office through attending an event, a class presentation, or an appointment, or having feedback provided on a resume review. Participation in experiential learning activities is also tracked but is captured separately and not included in the career engagement metric. Data on engagement are captured through 12twenty (locally branded PCO), then merged with enrolled student registration data, and reported and visualized using Tableau.
We also use 12twenty for outcomes data collection, combined with online research and phone calls to all graduates without a reported outcome in advance of the reporting deadline. This outreach both increases the percentage of graduates for whom we have a known outcome and ensures that graduates’ first contact with DU after graduation is to receive an offer of support and resources for their job searches. Whenever possible, outreach is conducted in advance of an upcoming career fair so that graduates can take advantage of the fair if they wish. This combination of systems has enabled us to reach out to students and graduates according to their needs and allowed for both year-over-year and point-in-time examinations and visualizations of a variety of analytics related to how, when, and which students are engaged in career development activities.
Advising systems and programs
Several shifts in the way that advising and career programs are delivered have also allowed us to reach more students over time.
First, advisers moved from an earlier standard of a 60-minute advising appointment to 30-minute time slots for most appointments, providing greater availability to individuals. In addition, all students have an assigned career adviser based on their academic area of interest or their status as undeclared. This has proven to be a welcoming message for both incoming students and families alike, encouraging students to access a specific adviser by name. The assigned adviser model also allows for targeted outreach with students who have not yet engaged; a student’s adviser reaches out directly with support and resources.
Another approach to reaching more students with meaningful support was the development of career courses that are taught by CPD staff members, including an internship course that can be delivered asynchronously and a job-search course.
Structured, facilitated opportunities for students to connect with the network of DU alumni in their areas of career interest and exploration have also proven popular.
Programs that typically enjoy the highest participation include the “Mentor for a Moment” program, which connects students with alumni in a particular career field; alumni panels on a range of career topics; and an annual etiquette dinner, which includes an alumnus at each dinner table.
Mock interview and resume review days, during which alumni serve as interviewers and resume reviewers, also connect students with alumni. Strategically including these days in a career fair preparation sequence leading up to the fair has increased student use of the programs.
The approach with the greatest impact on overall student engagement has been to foster intentional and strategic connections between career development and the classroom. Career staff and faculty members make these connections in several ways. Each year, members of the career teams reach out to department chairs to discuss career outcomes data specific to their departments. Faculty have been eager to review this data, and some meetings are held with the full department. In addition, each CPD adviser serves as a liaison to particular academic areas, and reaches out to faculty in their areas to invite collaboration. These outreach efforts, along with coordination with the first-year seminar program, have led to extensive collaborations with academic departments and presentations in classes.
In addition, a faculty-led initiative to integrate the NACE career readiness competencies in courses at the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences has increased curricular integration in this unit. This integration has made more visible to students the ways liberal arts coursework develops skills and knowledge areas that they will draw on in their future careers.
CPD efforts to recognize faculty commitment to student preparation have also supported a collaborative landscape. This year was the sixth anniversary of the Faculty Career Champion award, which recognizes faculty members who were nominated by their students for their efforts to help students prepare for their post-graduate plans. We received more than 300 nominations from students for the 2022 award, and all faculty nominees were presented with quotes from their student nominators and celebrated along with the two winners at the sixth annual awards ceremony. Faculty Career Champion nominees have led many of the successful collaborations between classroom and career that have taken place over the last several years, and also provide advice and feedback to the career teams through Faculty Career Champion working groups.
Other large-scale engagement points
Several more initiatives contribute to overall student engagement with career development activities.
At DU, student employment is housed within CPD and takes a developmental and social justice-oriented approach to supporting both student employees and campus supervisors in leveraging student employment as professional preparation. Because many students work on campus, trainings and programs offered by student employment tend to have strong participation, and engagement has increased as the program has grown and strengthened over time.
Career fair participation also contributes substantially to student engagement. Participation experienced a dip during the pandemic but has otherwise grown over the past several years. We attribute at least some of this growth to a careful focus on improving the student and employer experience at the fairs, as evidenced by improvement over time in the net promoter scores for the events.
In addition, CPD moved into the new, purpose-built Burwell Center for Career Achievement in 2021, and both employers and students have expressed that the space is conducive to a friendlier and more welcoming experience at the fairs.
Results: Strategies Driving Engagement
While all of these interventions likely contribute to engagement in tangible and intangible ways, several strategies in particular have clearly driven the largest increases.
For context, Figure 1 shows the growth over time of bachelor’s degree student engagement with career development. Engagement levels increased from 47% to 69% of students from 2016-17 to 2018-19. The dip in engagement in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years correlates with COVID-19. It is important to note, however, that much of the growth experienced before the pandemic was retained, and the 2021-22 academic year marked a return to both in-person events and engagement levels increases.
A more detailed review of the data reveals that the following interventions account for most of the growth:
- Class visits: Figure 2 shows the dramatic increase in class and student group visits. This was the largest increase of any engagement type in the last year. The increase of more than 1,000 unique students reached through these visits in 2021-22 over the prior year likely drove the greatest gains toward the 74% total engagement level.
- Career fairs: Figure 2 also shows the dip in career fair attendance during COVID-19. The decrease in unique attendees to these events appears to be a leading factor in the engagement decreases during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 years.
- Student employment: Figure 3 shows career fair attendance with student employment fair attendance excluded, demonstrating student employment’s role in contributing to student engagement and event attendance.
Knowing that class visits and career fairs are contributing to engagement gains raises a new question. Are we raising the level of student preparation and support with these interventions, or are these one-time, brief encounters that increase the numbers but might not contribute the level of depth needed to help students progress toward their goals?
Concerned about the extent to which these types of engagements serve and support students, we looked at how students who attended a class visit compared to those who never attended a class visit. (See Figure 4.) Those who attended a class visit were less likely to have no further engagement with career development than those who never attended a class visit. Class visit attendees were more likely to attend at least one event and at least one one-to-one advising session in addition to the class visit than their counterparts who did not attend a class visit. This suggests that class visits, rather than being a standalone engagement point, are an important gateway and introduction for students to the types of engagement and the repeated engagement that can help them best prepare for their post-graduate goals.
The Path Forward
We’re making several plans for the future that will guide our path forward over the next few years as we pursue our goal of 90% undergraduate engagement:
- We must maintain our strength in offering high-quality advising and ensuring the availability of advisers to meet with students, since engagement increases, even in other types of events, appear to foster increases in advising as well. We’ll monitor our Net Promoter Scores in this area, as well as our staff capacity, which is likely to be stretched as student engagement grows.
- We are working through the ways that connections with alumni and professional mentors factor into overall student engagement. We expect this type of engagement to continue to grow as the 4D Experience moves forward, and professional connections are an integral part of the 4D and CPD visions. Having an established data practice and close connections with campus partners will make it possible to include professional connections in future analyses of student engagement.
- We will continue to build strong career fairs, with emphasis on shaping these according to both student interests and the formats that are helpful to our employers and featuring a diverse array of industries to reach a wide range of students.
- Most of all, we’ll continue to focus on classroom presentations, integrations, and collaborations with faculty. This ecosystem model of engagement is working to increase the scale at which we can connect with students, and to encourage students’ future engagement with career development as well.
Lessons Learned and Implications for Other Institutions
In reviewing the work completed over the past six years and the results, we’ve identified a few lessons learned that may be helpful to other institutions striving to increase the scale of their student engagement with career development.
We suggest taking the following elements into consideration:
- It is critical to build and enhance strong data practices over time in order to have reliable information available, yield insights about patterns over time, and eventually develop and test assumptions about the impact of interventions for students and other stakeholders.
- Having clear goals for engagement annually and regular reports on progress toward goals have helped us to move forward and stay focused. At the start of each academic year, we set an overall engagement goal for the year and differentiated goals in each academic area. Since we use an academic liaison model, this enables individual staff members to take leadership in their liaison areas on the initiatives that will best support and engage students in that area. Each staff member’s goals for the year are also clearly tied to overall engagement goals.
- Academic integration and an ecosystem model are the cornerstone of achieving engagement at scale. At DU, this includes the Faculty Career Champion strategy, which helps recognize and celebrate the connections between classroom and career. It also includes a focus on building great examples of large-scale connection points, such as with first-year seminars, as well as efforts to continue reaching out and offering support and collaboration in areas where collaboration is not yet as extensive.
- Going to scale has resource implications. While we have been able to grow engagement relative to the existing number of CPD staff, we would not have been able to achieve the current levels of engagement without strong staffing, a team that is focused on outreach and collaboration, and a dedicated data leader. Ensuring the staff bandwidth to get from 74% to 90% will require careful attention.
We know that the closer we get to our 90% goal, the harder it will be to realize the remaining gains in engagement needed to reach the goal. Still, if we can build on the steps taken to date in order to accomplish this ambition, we believe the impact for students will be worth it.
NACE’s recent findings that use of career services correlates to a higher number of job offers add further evidence for the value of student engagement with career development.1 Those results are in keeping with earlier findings that graduates who visit career services are more likely to be employed full time than those who did not use career services.2 At DU, we are starting to see from our own data as well that engagement with career development matters in terms of how students fare after graduation. We look forward to continuing to shape an experience that engages all students in preparation for careers and lives of purpose, and to continuing to understand the role that our practices play individually and in combination in that preparation.
1 VanDerziel, S. (2022). The Value of Career Services. NACE Journal, Vol. 83, No. 2, 5. Retrieved from www.naceweb.org/career-development/organizational-structure/the-value-of-career-services/.
2 New, J. (2016). Looking for Career Help. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from www.insidehighered.com.