Out of the Wreckage of COVID, the Rebirth of College Career Services

By Maria Flynn

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the labor market, with more than 40 million Americans who have filed for unemployment. Even as some states have attempted to reopen their economies, allowing 4 million people to head back to work, the unemployment rate still hovers around 16%. And we’re still in the early innings of recovery—perhaps even just batting practice. The recovery will be long and difficult, and communities of color are bearing the brunt of this economic impact, exacerbating inequities that have long existed in our education and workforce systems.

NEJHE on 2020 College Grads and the Complex Job Market

When fear of the coronavirus shut down all but essential businesses in March, The New England Journal of Higher Education invited economists and other experts on “employability” to weigh in on how #COVID19 will affect 2020’s college grads in New England.

Recent data from Strada Education Network’s Center for Consumer Insights found that nearly one-quarter of Black and Latinx Americans have been laid off since the pandemic began. This environment is especially daunting for recent graduates, attempting to enter the worst job market since the Great Depression. Never in modern memory have we faced this sort of threat to prosperity.

Something deeper, and in some ways more pernicious, has long been troubling higher education, which has a career development infrastructure ill-suited to helping students navigate this moment. The impact of the pandemic is revealing systemic issues in our outdated approach to career preparation.

Back in 1989, I walked into my university’s campus career center and pulled a job posting off a bulletin board, which led to a part-time job that carried me through my junior and senior years of college. Fast forward to today, the model hasn’t changed much and, to a large extent, relies on a largely transactional, near-term approach.

Even before the pandemic, nearly 90% of freshmen said they went to college primarily to get a job. Those hopes rarely become reality, however, with just 27% of graduating seniors in the last decade landing a good job prior to graduation.

This system has left students unprepared for their lives after graduation, and dissatisfied with their education as a result. Even during times of relative economic plenty over the past decade, underemployment of recent college graduates ran rampant. About 43% of graduates started their careers in jobs that did not require a college credential. Few students meaningfully engaged with their career services office while in college, and those who did largely found the services to be unhelpful. One survey conducted by Strada Education Network and Gallup found that just one-quarter of working Americans with college experience strongly believe their education was relevant to their work and daily life.

While it’s true that many institutions do not prioritize career services—relegating career development opportunities to a couple of visits to an understaffed office at the end of a student’s college career—the challenge does not stem from a simple lack of resources or attention. Our country and its higher education system lack a comprehensive career navigation system that can help students, parents and workers make well-informed choices about their education and career paths.

The solution to our career services woes is not to find a quick fix to a broken system, but to develop a new and better one. Modernizing the career development function of higher education requires us to stop and appreciate the vital role that colleges play—not just as places of learning, but also as brokers of the sort of connections, social capital and networks that are still preconditions for economic mobility. As part of their value proposition, colleges and universities must work to design a system that can give students and workers the insights and guidance they need to find work—and they must deliver those services virtually.

Already, there are hints of what is possible through firms like Emsi, which uses data to help guide students toward careers, align programs with regional needs and help colleges, employers and policymakers understand regional workforce activity. Its Job Postings Dashboard provides a live look into fluctuating markets and lists the top industries looking to hire workers. Or consider new entrant AstrumU, which draws upon institutional and employer data to give students more granular insights into how their skills can translate into jobs and earnings potential.

Even with these promising tools, important work remains to be done focusing on the tangible action steps institutions can take to redesign based on the data. Valuable insights will be of little use if higher education does not leverage them to help students chart educational paths that will lead to a better job after graduation.

In addition to college-to-work pathways for traditional undergraduates, colleges and universities will have to accelerate their efforts to work with shifting demographics, including the millions of parent learners, displaced workers and stop-outs now returning to higher education. Armed with a greater understanding of their career possibilities and which credentials they need to make them a reality, workers may decide to seek out a college degree or return to school to earn a new one. The recently launched SkillUp Coalition has tapped large, adult-serving universities like Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), the University of Denver and the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) to provide training to displaced workers. Colleges can and should embrace their role in providing short-form credentials and certificates, which are gaining ground in popularity.

Moving career navigation forward will demand much more than a one-and-done approach. We can no longer view learning, employment and career training as linear. Instead, we should view them as part of a cyclical process that will require education providers to help workers weave in and out of learning, often with support from an employer.

These changes are long overdue, but the dramatic impact of COVID-19 provides higher education and the workforce with a stronger impetus than ever before to finally overhaul our broken career services system. Doing so can help graduates and displaced workers better navigate an uncertain workforce both now and in the future.

Nowhere is it written that higher education is beholden to the traditions of the past. This moment should fuel a new sense of urgency around not only helping displaced workers in the short-term, but in the long-term, designing a college experience where social and economic mobility is the ultimate measure of success.

Maria Flynn is president and CEO of JFF (Jobs for the Future).


More Posts from this Series

Will the Scarring Show? Graduating in the Time of COVID-19 by Nicole Smith

COVID-19 and the Gap Year by Neeta P. Fogg and Paul E. Harrington



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