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Reading new national student survey results showing deep dissatisfaction with campus career services, I felt a familiar tension. As a nontraditional university president nearly five years into my job, I felt a tad defensive. Our career services team has been working incredibly hard to keep pace with a changing job market, and we are making great progress. But as a former special forces officer and business leader, I also know that sometimes blunt, negative results like these can prompt an entire sector—in this case higher education—to take action and seek big solutions.
The immediate problem identified in the recent survey is that we’re not effectively meeting students’ career-readiness needs. Only 14 percent of the 2,239 undergraduates around the country who replied to a summer survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, with support from Kaplan, felt that they had received good service from their school’s career center (Just 2 percent felt they had received bad customer service from the career center, and the rest didn’t feel strongly either way.)
At a time when many in this country are questioning the value of a college degree, this is an alarming result. And it’s a stark reminder that simply making a service available to students isn’t the same as, well, identifying their needs, developing effective ways to help them achieve their goals and earning their respect and loyalty.
I worry that this important issue can sometimes devolve into a simplistic discussion about customer service: just be friendlier and change your hours to times convenient to students, and the problem is solved. Not so much.
In higher education we’ve got to move beyond this simplistic view and dig more deeply into how our structures fail to provide students with what they want and need as they navigate college and career.
For example, we have ample evidence that many undergraduates want real-world experience to be part of their education. They want academic learning and supportive help with résumé writing, of course. At the same time, they’re understandably eager to connect their classroom studies to career possibilities, whether through internships, summer jobs or practical coursework. But are we willing to listen, take this evidence seriously and adapt our services?
Providing Access to Experiential Learning
At the University of Montana, we are proponents of the “generally educated, specifically skilled” mind-set that integrates a liberal arts education with industry-specific skills. We are working hard to lean into what our students want and deserve by making sure every student has access to work-based experience through experiential learning. On an organizational level, we’ve done that by combining what were previously separate departments, the Office of Career Services, the Office of Academic Enrichment and the Office of Civic Engagement, into a new Office of Experiential Learning and Career Success.
But this isn’t about moving boxes around on an org chart. It reflects our commitment to purposefully link internships, volunteership, academics and jobs through a career-readiness program we call ElevateU.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, we worked with Parker Dewey to launch remote microinternships for UM students. These short-term professional projects—which might involve data analysis, helping with marketing campaigns or researching promising candidates for job openings—require discrete deliverables to business clients and are similar to the tasks often assigned to recent college graduates or interns. They give participants substantive experience, academic credit for the portfolio of work they build and a taste for the careers they might pursue.
In addition, microinternships allow students to develop real professional relationships, while potential future employers can evaluate interns’ real-world performance before deciding whether to hire them.
UM students, like their counterparts at other colleges, are eager to show potential employers that they can hit the ground running with in-demand skills. To help them get a foot in the door, last year we partnered with Kaplan to offer our students Credegree (credential plus degree) programs, which allow them to earn industry-recognized credentials in sought-after tech fields—cybersecurity, data science, data literacy and digital marketing—as part of their bachelor’s programs. That means students will complete their four-year degrees with vital foundational skills—the ability to conduct research, to analyze and synthesize complex information, to communicate—as well as targeted skills demonstrated by tailored credentials that employers know and value.
Our focus on career readiness is not just a response to recent trends or, as some have cynically alleged, a push to turn our flagship university into a “vocational” school. Rather, it’s driven by the imperative that sits at the very core of our institutional mission: to foster inclusive prosperity in our community and across our state.
First-generation college students represent nearly 40 percent of our undergraduate population, and approximately a third of our students are Pell eligible. For many of these students, who often juggle work and family obligations with school, engaging in traditional career-readiness programs, which are often unpaid and occur during semester breaks, simply isn’t feasible. And these same students are likely the ones who benefit most from the professional networks that are built during an internship and prove invaluable in the postgraduation job hunt.
Our work to enhance our career services for all students is an equity imperative. With this in mind, we plan to build on our successful recent $450 million fundraising campaign by creating dedicated funds to sponsor students who want to take unpaid or low-paid internships. Our students have the talent and the ability to work hard at earning degrees, but they deserve tailored support to get the on-the-job experience they need and the social capital so necessary for success in today’s economy.
Embracing the Liberal Arts
One final note about which I can’t be loud enough: experiential learning to lay the groundwork for careers doesn’t represent a retreat from the liberal arts. Quite the contrary. We’ve been stuck in an unproductive debate for too long based on the mistaken premise that the growing interest in skills-based training is an attack on the value of broad education.
Even an institution like West Point, where I was a cadet as an undergraduate and later served on the faculty, has enthusiastically embraced the liberal arts along with the engineering studies and military training required of every student. Future leaders need the tangible skills to do their jobs well immediately upon graduation, but also the foundational cognitive capacities and broad-based knowledge to navigate uncertainty and cope with ambiguity throughout their careers.
In the same spirit, we believe a rigorous education equips our students with a valuable combination of fundamental and targeted skills. Both are needed to ensure career readiness, which is why we believe our renewed focus on experiential learning is a much-needed complement to a broad liberal arts education. If we can get the balance right, we hope we’ll earn high marks from students when it comes to educating them for both productive careers and lives.
More coverage of the Student Voice survey on students as customers across campus: 8 Ways to Improve Student Interactions With Campus Offices.