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Attracting students to various institutional resources remains a challenge for all higher education professionals. Muhlenberg College’s career center dug through the data to understand which of its students were not visiting the office or attending its programs and adjusted accordingly.

“Data is driving 100 percent of the decisions we’re making, and it’s really opening up our eyes to gaps that we didn’t know … existed,” says Sean Schofield, executive director of career services at Muhlenberg.

What happened: When Schofield began in his role in May 2021, he first turned to the data.

The career center collects all kinds of information from its Handshake platform, including student demographics, major interests, career goals, event or workshop participation, and appointments booked with the center. Surveys, focus groups and interviews also add data to the reports from Handshake.

In addition, the center surveys recent alumni to understand their initial postgraduate plans, what Schofield calls their “first destination,” and any experiential learning completed during their undergraduate careers.

Muhlenberg’s career center was reaching 62 to 72 percent of its student population annually at the end of the 2021 academic year.

“My first question I asked when the team told me that was, ‘Wow, that’s fantastic. Is it always the same, like 30 percent or so that we don’t hit?’” Schofield says. He wanted to understand who was being missed and if there was any connection in who those students were.

Schofield and his team realized in their data analysis that students in performance arts majors and those planning on attending graduate school were less likely than their peers to visit the career center or complete their first-destination survey.

The solution: As a result, Muhlenberg’s career center staff focused their attention on these groups and how they could enhance outreach and relationships.

For performing arts students, the career center established a career coach who would liaise between the departments and increased collaboration with those faculty members. Muhlenberg’s campus is divided by a road, Chew Street, that separates most academic facilities and administrative services from the theater, center for the arts and rehearsal house, so the career center’s goal was to “Cross Chew Street,” Schofield explains.

Similarly, the Graduate School Preparatory Program had a new dedicated staff member to support students as they applied for programs and considered options in continuing their education.

Both career coaches had personal and professional experience in their related fields, Schofield says, making them the perfect fit for the roles and able to gain the trust of faculty and students in their fields.

More broadly, the career center changed the language and phrasing on its website to be more inclusive for students and their postgraduate experiences. Instead of marketing a list of employers a student could work with, the center emphasized stories and diverse outcomes following graduation.

“We not only tell stories of professional advancement in full-time work but highlight our support structure for students who are applying to graduate and professional schools,” Schofield says.

The center also re-evaluated its experiential learning opportunities, and the allocated funding for those programs, to expand its supports for underserviced students.

Other uses for data: Besides assisting the center in reaching students, the focus on data is contributing to building relationships with faculty.

“One of the things that initially I did was to go around to faculty and introduce [myself] and say, ‘Hey, what data can we provide you?’” Schofield explains.

By working with data, the career center is also reconstructing its services more broadly. When hiring new team members, for example, Schofield is intentional in selecting personnel who are comfortable with and have a high aptitude for data synthesis and reporting. Schofield has hired five new faces to his team, strengthening the career center’s data strategies.

“Whatever we do, we want to be able to count in some way,” Schofield says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean with numbers, but we have to be able to count it, and what we’re counting has to be learning.”

Rather than evaluating participation or utilization, the career center re-established programs to target specific learning outcomes for every year a student is enrolled at the college, creating a phased approach to career development and readiness that it calls the Muhlenberg Action Plan, or MAP for short.

Do you have a data success tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

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