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A female students gestures to a female career counselor seated next to her in an office space.

The largest share of students in a new survey by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, about four in 10, have interacted with their campus career center two to five times. Data also suggest a mismatch between the services students value and the services they’re actually seeking out or perhaps being offered.

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Nina Karlin hasn’t graduated from Bryant University yet, but she’s already launching a small business based on a shoe insert she designed, called the Fresh Kick.

Karlin, who’s studying entrepreneurship and marketing, has always been business-minded. At age 9, armed with a PowerPoint presentation, she convinced her canine-averse mom to let her start a dog-walking and boarding business. Necessity also played a role in her most recent venture: Karlin, who plays Division I basketball at Bryant, says she had chronically “smelly shoes” after games and sought to design a three-in-one insert that would prevent creases, eliminate odor and absorb extra moisture.

But she also credits Bryant’s Amica Center for Career Education with helping jump-start her postcollege career. The center offered Karlin fellowships to subsidize two summer internships and awarded her $1,000 in competitive entrepreneurial funds for the Fresh Kick, which she used to hire an engineer who helped her build a prototype.

“The career center has been a big help,” says Karlin, a senior who will serve as a Venture for America fellow with a start-up when she graduates, in addition to launching her product. “It has different coaches and mentors who walk you through how to negotiate different internships, who look at your LinkedIn and résumé and put in you in contact with those connections that Bryant has.”

Even for the vast majority of college students without their own businesses, the benefits of working with a career center are well documented.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers has found that students who graduated from four-year institutions in 2022 who used just one career center service of any kind received an average of 1.24 job offers, which increased by 0.05 offers for each additional service used. That’s compared to just one offer for graduates who didn’t use any career center services.

In another example, from Lightcast’s 2023 National Alumni Career Mobility Annual Report, college graduates who scored high on a series of “institutional career investment” questions—such as whether their college had helped them understand career opportunities, make a career plan and network with employers, all common career center services—were 2.8 times more likely to say their degree was worth the tuition they paid.

Certain career-focused experiences, including having at least one college or university official initiate a conversation about career options, significantly boost students’ confidence about their career preparation, as well, according to research by Strada and Gallup.

Career Center Usage Rates

Even so, a significant share of students doesn’t engage with career services: according to the newest Student Voice survey of 3,000 four- and two-year students, on life after college, three in 10 (31 percent) say they’ve never interacted with their college or university career center.

The largest share of students in the survey by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, about four in 10 (41 percent), have interacted with their career center two to five times. Not quite one in 10 (8 percent) has interacted with the center six or more times (Karlin, who estimates she’s visited her career center about a half dozen times, is part of this group). An additional two in 10 (20 percent) students have visited their career center just once—bringing the total who have had interactions up to about seven in 10.

Shawn VanDerziel, president and CEO of NACE—who reviewed the Student Voice findings—says it’s “great to see so many students making use of their career center.” Still, he adds, the goal “would be to get to 100 percent of the student population using career services,” given the centers’ connection to job-search outcomes.

Are usage rates higher for students intending to graduate this academic year? Not really. Some 28 percent of the Class of 2024 still hasn’t interacted with their career center, nor has 32 percent of the Class of 2025.

In a more promising finding, 70 percent of the Class of 2026 has already interacted at least once with their career center—as has 62 percent of the Class of 2027, most of whom are at four-year institutions and years away from graduation.

Niklas Trzaskowski, director of the career center at Maryville College in Tennessee, who also reviewed the Student Voice findings, says this may be a function of institutions “introducing students to their career services much earlier.” Additionally, he says, students seem to be entering college “more focused on attaining a positive postgraduation outcome.” Trzaskowski links both of these trends to broader discussions about the value of higher education, especially with respect to career preparation.

Career center engagement rates among more senior students in the survey may be linked to the pandemic and campus shutdowns, as well. But even as engagement rates were slowly rising prior to COVID-19, just about six in 10 graduates said they’d visited a career center at least once, based on NACE data.

At Maryville, students start engaging with the career center during a required first-year seminar, as part of the Maryville College Works program. The program scaffolds students’ career preparation throughout their time on campus and includes professional development courses and significant practical experiences. Collaboration between career center staff and faculty members is a key feature.

At Bryant, starting next semester, all first-year students will be required to take a new general education “career launch” course, covering such topics as career exploration and best networking practices. First-year students are also able to meet with career coaches and the university’s experiential education team, take a career assessment, and participate in job shadowing with alumni.

Trzaskowski, of Maryville, says that even if a student has already mapped out postgraduation plans or secured a postgrad opportunity, career center staff members can help students maximize their opportunities or even consider paths they hadn’t previously. He adds that he and his colleagues often think about whom they haven’t interacted with, and why, and about how to remove barriers to engagement. These can include course schedules or other commitments conflicting with center events and appointments. According to NACE data, fewer than half of career centers collect demographic data on those using their services.

Beyond class year, center usage rates are relatively consistent across a number of other student demographics and institutional profiles in the Student Voice survey, with a few exceptions. Usage rates at private nonprofit institutions are significantly higher than at public institutions, with 34 percent of students at publics never having used their center, compared to 20 percent of students at private nonprofits. Additionally, 49 percent of students at private nonprofits have interacted with their centers two to five times, compared to 39 percent of students at publics. By major racial group, white students are most likely to report never having interacted with their career center, at 36 percent. That’s compared to 20 percent of Black students, 25 percent of Asian students and 29 percent of Hispanic students.

Accessing Services

As for which career center services students are using, about four in 10 respondents who’ve interacted with their career center (n=2,084) each say they’ve benefited from career exploration (41 percent), choosing a major (41 percent), recruitment events (40 percent) and résumé development (39 percent).

Nearly three in 10 students (27 percent) have gotten help creating a career plan. Fewer than two in 10 students have benefited from networking (19 percent), getting an internship (17 percent), prepping for recruitment events (14 percent) and interview prep or mock interviews (12 percent).

Even less popular services from a list of 19 total options in the survey—which may or may not indicate assistance that is less available in career centers nationwide—include help with professional headshots, internship prep, finding an interview outfit, preparing for graduate or professional school, finding a professional mentor, developing one’s professional social media profile, personal branding, institutional partnerships with potential employers and workplace norms.

By class year, 44 percent of the Class of 2024 has sought out résumé development, compared to 27 percent of the Class of 2027. Perhaps surprisingly, just 18 percent of the Class of 2024 has gotten help finding an internship.

Trzaskowski says he was surprised by this last finding, as career centers “need to play an active role in the internship process for students because, as we know, they are important to the career preparation of our students.” Internships are yet another opportunity for career center staff and faculty members to collaborate, he adds. Moreover, NACE has found that students whose career centers help them find an internship are 2.2 times more likely to get a paid internship than an unpaid one or no internship at all.

By major racial group, 35 percent of Black Student Voice respondents say they have gotten help creating a career plan, as have 31 percent of Hispanic students, relative to 24 percent each of white and Asian students.

Students who attended private high schools, meanwhile, are significantly more likely to have attended a college or university career center recruitment event than peers who went to a public high school, at 47 percent versus 38 percent, respectively. Men are also more likely to have attended a recruitment event than women or nonbinary peers, at 48 percent versus 35 percent and 31 percent, respectively. And four-year college students (n=2,400) are more likely than their two-year college peers (n=600) to have attended a recruitment event, at 43 percent versus 27 percent, respectively.

In another significant difference between four-year and two-year students, more than half (53 percent) of two-year students say they’ve benefited from career center help in choosing a major, relative to 38 percent of four-year peers. Some 43 percent of four-year students have gotten career center help developing a résumé, while this service appears to be much less popular among two-year students, at just 21 percent.

Developing a career plan may be more popular among two-year college students than four-year students, however, with 35 percent of the former group benefiting from this service versus 25 percent of the latter.

What Students Want From Career Centers

Asked which services career centers should offer, more than half of respondents each say the following: résumé development (69 percent), career exploration (67 percent), recruitment events (64 percent), getting an internship (62 percent), interview prep or mock interviews (59 percent), networking (56 percent), and preparing for and succeeding in an internship (51 percent). Many of these percentages are significantly higher than students’ reported usage rates for the same kinds of services on their campuses, suggesting something of a disconnect between what students value in career centers and what help they’re actually seeking out—or what’s available.

Between three in 10 and five in 10 students each also say career centers should offer help with the following: prepping for recruitment events, professional headshots, finding a professional mentor, institutional partnerships with potential employers, finding an interview outfit, developing one’s social media profile, workplace norms and professional branding.

Forty-six percent of students say career centers should offer help with professional headshots, for example, while just 8 percent of students who’ve interacted with their career centers have received this kind of help. Perhaps more consequentially, just 17 percent of students who’ve interacted with their career center say they’ve gotten help finding an internship, while 62 percent of students overall say career centers should offer this service.

Four-year students are also more likely than two-year students to say that career centers should offer nearly all 15 services listed in the survey. Two in three (67 percent) four-year students indicate a career center should offer recruitment events, for instance, versus half (53 percent) of two-year students.

Trzaskowski says the No. 3 option here, recruiting events, “is where career centers can really shine, by making sure a variety of organizations visit campus throughout the academic year and holding well-organized recruiting events.” Virtual recruiting events are becoming more popular across higher education, as well.

Regarding résumé development, Trzaskowski says it being the top option speaks to “students’ trust in career services in providing them with meaningful advice.” At the same time, he says, students need reminding that a résumé is just one component of their application packet and “one small aspect of securing an opportunity.” Unfortunately, “all too often, career services are only seen as place where people can help you with a résumé.”

How Students Rate Their Career Centers

Over all, career centers get relatively high marks for service awareness and being welcoming. Fewer than half of students feel strongly that their career centers have a good variety of services and that they’re effective, however. Satisfaction rates are also wanting.

Of the 2,084 students survey who have interacted with their career centers, about seven in 10 (69 percent) say they’re aware of the services that center offers, while fewer than two in 10 (16 percent) say they’re not aware of what’s available. More than half (55 percent) of these respondents say their center is welcoming, while very few (3 percent) say it’s not welcoming.

Not quite half (44 percent) of these students say their center offers a good variety of services, but very few (2 percent) explicitly indicate that it doesn’t.

Just over a third (36 percent) of students agree they’re satisfied with their career center experience, however, while few (6 percent) explicitly indicate they’re not satisfied. Similarly, just about a third (32 percent) of students feel strongly that their career center’s services are effective, while few (4 percent) explicitly say they’re not.

For Trzaskowski, the career center service awareness levels suggest that centers are doing a good job at marketing their services, whether on social media or elsewhere. Professors are another important public relations tool, he says, as “many faculty supporters invite career center staff members into their classrooms and encourage their students to take advantage of our services.”

On satisfaction rates, Trzaskowski says students visiting his center may complete a postappointment survey for services, yet many students don’t take this step. He believes managing students’ expectations early on about what can be accomplished in a single appointment is important, not only to prevent false expectations but also to “learn to understand that the job-search process takes time.”

Karlin, at Bryant, says that her career center does a pretty good job tabling at campus events and otherwise making its services known. The center is also very welcoming, she says, both in terms of personnel—including student workers—and the overall environment. Students can ring a bell on the wall when they get a job and everyone else in the center cheers, she notes. Responsiveness is another plus: Karlin says her emailed questions about her summer internship fellowships were answered promptly.

“It’s just their openness to helping and how fast their return on time is.”

VanDerziel, of NACE, says that “Finding ways to engage students with career preparation is important, including by infusing it into curricular and co-curricular activities.” And while the career center is a hub of this work, “it takes the entire campus community to help students with their college-to-career journey.”

He adds, “We have to catch students where they are and not just rely on them seeking out the services.”

What does your career center do to help students celebrate securing their first job postgraduation? Tell us about it.

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