Student learning over career transactions
NACE Journal, February 2022
Remember the board game Trouble? In the middle of the game board is a dome with a die inside. Players press their hand onto the dome to shake up the die. Imagine COVID-19 as the hand and higher education as the die—die being shaken into trouble.
The pandemic is the latest in a series of recent events—from the great recession, consolidations, alternative credentialing, student debt, consumer access and choice to education, and a rising focus on outcomes—that have shaken higher education. Each time, higher education has been asked to become more adaptable and adjust to the changes.
Many institutions respond to these events through focused review and realignment of functions, often related to structure (mergers, consolidations, or reorganizations) or financial drivers (enrollment, retention, graduation, first destination). These shifts can also be unrelated to student learning and development, with a focus on finding a strategic advantage and new measurements. As educators, it is critical to keep recentering the dialogue on how learning happens for all our students, inclusive of issues of equity.
Career centers have often been the recipients of realignment as institutional priorities shift. Yet, the work of career centers is intricately tied into the university ecosystem. Gallup found that alumni who reported high-quality experiences with career centers were significantly more likely to feel prepared for life outside of college, recommend their school to others, and donate.1 If realignment is done with an equitable and inclusive lens for student experiences and outcomes, these shifts can have positive impacts. However, the opposite is also true. If an institution clings to the severely outdated myth that universities should "place" students through their career centers, student learning, as well as critical connections with stakeholders, can be lost.
Shawn VanDerziel, executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), says, "The most successful career operations are those that provide their campuses with leadership and a plan for the development of their students. They understand the important role their institution has in the preparation of students for lifelong career and self-management. This is supported by evidence-based theories and a multitude of success measures."
The concept of “placement” masks an accurate understanding of the career development process and the value brought through the work of campus career centers. Career centers’ true work consists of intentional efforts to drive student success by teaching students to become career ready through self-awareness, creating connections with social networks (employers, recruiters, and alumni), experiential learning, and navigating the changing world of work. An important component to that work is it is not a one-time or one-size-fits-all approach. Career development is an ongoing, lifelong process preparing students for a lifetime of career decisions, not their first job. Career centers may be working with today’s students, but they are shaping the career success of tomorrow’s alumni.
Career Work Is Transformational, Not Transactional
Think about your banking relationship. Visiting a bank is a transactional experience, online or in person. You can provide a check to deposit, and you will receive a receipt. A literal transaction has taken place. Career work is not meant to be, nor should it be, a transactional experience. The outdated “placement” myth is grounded in this approach to career services. This transactional approach misses the opportunity to engage students in transformational learning. Institutions that want engaged and thriving learning communities should seek to ground their career work in guiding students to create their own agency in the career development process.
In a common transactional career center experience, a student meets with a staff member who instructs them on what to do and how to do it. For example, a student may ask about internships in a specific field or how to create a resume. If staff are not asking questions and engaging the student but instead simply providing advice, that is a transactional experience.
In a transformational process, staff are asking questions, students are talking more than the staff, and staff are creating an interactive learning environment, understanding not just the question asked but the underlying rationale for the question. Students must engage and take ownership of their career development, seeing it as integrated into their academic experiences. Creating this kind of agency requires facilitating and prioritizing student learning outcomes rather than transactional outputs.
Sharon Belden Castonguay, executive director of Wesleyan's Gordon Career Center, and president of the Liberal Arts Career NetWORK, says, "To see academic learning as transformational and career development as transactional sends the message to students that what they learn about themselves and the world is not relevant to their career choices. But students are eager to find meaning in their professional lives, and it's our responsibility to ask the tough questions to help them achieve that."
As the current pandemic has shown the world, plans can change suddenly. Student interests, skills, values, and motivations change over time. Outside factors and chance events influence goals and directions. The result is that careers are not linear paths, and so career development is, in part, also about teaching adaptability. Transactional career work assumes an environment that does not change.
Even prior to the pandemic, change was the one constant in reports of student job movement. On average, college students change their major three times , with more than half leaving their first job within a year.2 Longitudinal studies from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that Americans held an average of 8.2 jobs between ages 18 and 32.3
Marilyn Bury Rice, director at The Ohio State University and president of the Alumni Career Services Network, notes, “We have seen great change in the workforce and how people would prefer to work. We are creating ways in which our alumni can obtain skills through microcredentialing and certification programs in order to meet the demands of the workforce.” As a result, the focus should be on how to facilitate student learning and development rather than solely on how to secure that immediate first destination.
Engaging in a transformational approach empowers students to navigate an unpredictable world so they can pivot successfully throughout their lifetime. “Given these realities, career support that is based on rigid plans and predictions is no longer relevant. The current times demand approaches and frameworks that are more dynamic and flexible and that don't shy away from acknowledging the uncertainties and inequities of our time. They also require nuanced approaches from skilled professionals that emphasize learning and growth,” writes Tony Botelho, director of career and volunteer services at Simon Fraser University in Canada.
Establishing Career Frameworks
Moving away from traditional “placing” of students and transactional services requires a framework, one that considers multicultural student development, decision making, how to engage in goal pursuit, and the current world of work.
Great frameworks are based on student development, counseling, career, or psychological theories and come with established research and outcomes. Appropriately selected frameworks account for the career needs of all students and of BIPOC, marginalized, and first-generation students navigating a different experience in the world of work. This becomes more important as we acknowledge the connection between career and mental health.
Seth Hayden, associate professor of counseling at Wake Forest University and president of the National Career Development Association (NCDA), describes how “aspects of career are connected to other dimensions of our lives, such as family, finances, and overall well-being. Given the comprehensive nature of career and work, it is important we operate from a holistic perspective. Theory offers us a sophisticated structure in which to address complex career concerns.”
Using an established theoretical framework in career centers supports students as well as professionals. For students, it creates an understanding of how their career center supports their current and future success. For staff, it allows the center and practitioners to align goals with institutional priorities, ensure equity in practice, design theory-based interventions, and develop measurable learning outcomes. It shifts the emphasis from transactions to providing transformational learning and development that provides students a lifetime of skills.
For institutions, this can create alignment with strategic plans, ensure objectives that address accreditation standards, and further connections with faculty partners. Just as one size does not fit all in working with students, one theory does not fit all. Campus context is extremely important to consider when choosing a single grounding theory or the right mix for an individual campus. In creating academically grounded practices built on theory, we also align the work of career centers with faculty and cement our work as educators.
There are several modern theories of career development, and the process of reviewing and selecting a framework is as important and helpful as the result. Several centers have taken this approach from incorporating life design, brain-based career development, meaningful work, career readiness, chaos theory of careers, community cultural wealth, and others. Each one provides practitioners a purpose for why and how staff engage students and allows an evaluation of impactful work.
In selecting a framework, it is important to remember that not all students have the privilege, resources, or networks to pursue all paths. Career centers address inequities by supporting students directly through population-specific resources and indirectly through advocacy with employers. The appropriate framework should support and integrate diverse student needs; and identity development, cultural competency, critical race theory, and systems that have perpetuated—and continue to perpetuate—inequities critical to understanding how career decisions are made by different communities of students.
Dr. Sarah McElroy, executive director of Career & Transfer Pathways at Brookdale Community College, adds, “From the community college perspective, a flexible theoretical framework is extremely important. Understanding multiple career development theories is vital so that community college career centers can use a variety of methods, assessments, and activities that can be tailored to each individual student. Every community college student has a unique background, experiences, and goals, so careful consideration of a student’s personhood is necessary.”
Once a framework has been selected, center staff should be trained in theory-based interventions, and the larger framework should be shared with students, faculty, and staff, as well as employers and community partners. Many training and certification programs, including those from NACE and NCDA, provide credentialing and education to new and experienced career practitioners, allowing professionals from all types of institutions and with all levels of resources to begin to engage in this process. Career centers have seen successes integrating theory through a focused review and institutional realignment and through small-scale innovations starting at the department level.
No matter the route, intentional career development should be at the core of everyone's academic mission, and an established career framework turns transactional services into transformational learning.
1 From College to Life: Relevance and the Value of Higher Education (May 2018). Strada/Gallup. Retrieved from https://go.stradaeducation.org/from-college-to-life.
2 Data Point: Beginning College Students Who Change Their Majors Within 3 Years of Enrollment (December 2017). National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018434.pdf.
3 People Born in Early 1980s Held an Average of 8.2 Jobs From Ages 18 Through 32 (June 3, 2020). Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2020/people-born-in-early-1980s-held-an-average-of-8-point-2-jobs-from-ages-18-through-32.htm.