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Since its launch in 2014, career-services platform Handshake has dominated the higher ed market. Despite revelations that fraudsters have been able to create faux internships on Handshake, and students raising privacy concerns, the online service has spread to more than 800 institutions, where college career centers mainly use it to connect students to potential employers -- including every Fortune 500 company.

Handshake has been moving for years toward a business model more akin to networking websites such as LinkedIn or Facebook. The platform’s most recent shift, announced Tuesday, seems to continue this trend, though Handshake’s co-founder, Garrett Lord, said it is not a media company.

Now any student with an email address ending in .edu can sign up on Handshake for free without being required to be enrolled at one of the colleges or universities with which the company has partnered.

Handshake’s representatives are touting the change as a way to continue “democratizing” job opportunities and helping students find employment or an internship with one of Handshake's more than 400,000 employers, regardless of where the students live or attend college. Colleges and universities use Handshake to store student information such as résumés, cover letters and university transcripts. Students build online profiles using their own information and list their academic interests. Employers can review these profile and post jobs or internships, also for free.

The move by Handshake is an indication of how students are now far less reliant on actually visiting college career services centers for help finding internships and jobs. This trend has forced administrators in these offices to redefine their roles in assisting students get a start on their career paths.

“Opening up Handshake and launching peer-learning features will make it easier for students and recent grads to share advice and learn from one another -- in addition to their amazing career center advisers -- so they can more easily find a job that’s right for them,” Lord wrote in an email. “Most college students starting their careers don’t have established professional networks to leverage, and these enhancements to Handshake have been made to meet students’ unique job and internship search needs.”

Though other companies offer platforms similar to Handshake, many institutions’ career services offices prefer Handshake because it’s easy for students and administrators to use. This is the case at Loyola Marymount University, a private Jesuit college in Los Angeles that has used Handshake for three years.

Branden F. Grimmett, associate provost for career and professional development, said he appreciates that Handshake was made available to all students because it's helpful for them to know how to navigate the platform, even if they attended an institution that doesn’t use Handshake. He said now if students transfer to Loyola Marymount from a institution that doesn't use the platform, they might have some familiarity with it.

He also likes that universities that do use Handshake retain some unique features that aren't available to students who signed up for Handshake outside a university. For example, Handshake rolled out student reviews of employers in recent years. The reviews document their experiences at certain companies or in particular jobs.

“It’s good that they recognize the value in what universities are paying for,” Grimmett said.

Lord wrote in his email that “Handshake is even better for students at our 800-plus partner schools.” He believes students benefit from working with professors and career services staff who rely on Handshake to help advise and mentor students. Colleges also receive data about the number of students that use the platform and are placed in positions.

In a separate, written statement, Handshake executives seemed to want to assure paying clients that making the service available to more students would not diminish the relationships with the colleges that pay for it.

“Universities have been at the center of Handshake since the company was founded, and that’s not changing,” Christine Cruzveraga, vice president of higher education and student success at Handshake, said in the statement. “Opening up access is a critical next step in contributing to educational equity and realizing our mission of democratizing opportunity for every student -- including those that may attend an institution without the resources to offer career services. We’re all part of this larger ecosystem.”

Three college representatives interviewed for this article either declined to say or did not know how much their institutions paid for their contracts with Handshake.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers, the group representing career services professionals, declined to comment on Handshake or similar services.

Lord helped create Handshake after dropping out of Michigan Technological University. He has said that his computer science-oriented friends who attended the university couldn’t find internships nearby because it was located in Michigan’s secluded Upper Peninsula.

Handshake will most likely benefit students who attend smaller institutions that may not host robust career fairs, said Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education.

First-generation or impoverished students particularly have trouble finding positions, and programs such as Handshake can help them market themselves and track down these jobs, Kruger said.

Student career services on college campuses have been transformed because of the ubiquity of Handshake and other similar platforms. Administrators often can’t get students to visit career center offices anymore, and the job counselors have become more like guides that help students apply for online postings rather than find them actual opportunities, Kruger said.

He noted how students are developing virtual career profiles -- “passports,” Kruger calls them -- and taking them from institution to institution, especially as more students are transferring nowadays.

“Over all, when I talk to folks around campus, I think this move is a pretty positive one,” Kruger said.

Joseph A. Testani, assistant dean and executive director of the Gwen M. Greene Center for Career Education and Connections at the University of Rochester, said his staff is trying to help students make sense of all the job opportunities and information at their fingertips.

“More information isn’t always better,” he said.

Testani likened some of the services Handshake offers to Yelp or Glassdoor. Students tend to trust the opinions of other students over other adults, even alumni who have been in these positions before, he said.

Rochester sends students email blasts about career services events through Handshake, as well as job postings that are curated to match the academic interests they indicate in their profiles, Testani said.

“We’re trying to navigate more critically to figure out where students are at,” he said.

Handshake has come under fire for potentially infringing on student privacy. Inside Higher Ed reported in 2017 that students were unaware their personal information -- such as grade point averages -- had been posted for the view of employers. Some privacy experts suggested at the time that the students had not closely read Handshake’s terms of service, because universities said the students had given permission for all of their information to be made somewhat public.

A student at the University of Delaware last year was able to construct a fake employer, register it on Handshake and view her peers’ personal information.

Privacy settings are now much clearer for students when they log on to Handshake, Lord said

All students have the option to remain completely anonymous on the Handshake network and only use it to view or apply to jobs or interact with their career centers. They can also choose whether they want to appear in searches employers conduct.

Students with public profiles can separately decide whether they want to share their GPA, Lord said. He said before Handshake started its employer-review system, it tested it with students “to ensure they understood their community privacy options clearly.”

Handshake also recently formed a Trust and Safety Council, comprising privacy experts, lawyers and administrators, which meets weekly to discuss various issues and features of the platform.

“We’re happy to report that Handshake’s rate of fraudulent job postings or moderation flags is far below any other site students are using to find jobs or get career advice,” Lord wrote in his email.

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