Inside the College Career Counseling Office: A Former Corporate Executive’s Perspective

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

From 2006 until 2012, I was a career coach to thousands of undergraduate and graduate students on over 30 campuses around the country. I lectured on career development, interviewing and networking skills, and work/life issues at small liberal arts colleges, large state universities, community colleges and Ivy League schools. My background as a former officer of two Fortune 25 companies, a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, a director of A Better Chance National Minority Recruitment Program and the National Domestic Violence Hotline as well as being the parent of two college graduates gave me a unique perspective that proved valuable to college administrators and their students.

During this six-year period I saw enormous changes in the American undergraduate student population. Whether they attended rural colleges or two year schools or elite urban universities, the students I worked with were more diverse than those who had graduated from college with my children just three years earlier. Many were first generation students, whose parents, while supportive, did not have the knowledge inventory or the networks of friends to help their children with career advice. I was inspired by the creative programs many college career counselors developed to help these students, while deeply concerned with the many fundamental needs that I saw when I worked with these aspiring young men and women. 

This six year period was also marked by profound economic changes. When I began coaching in 2006, the economy was booming. Even some liberal arts students were getting signing bonuses. Students did not see the pitfalls in having four, five and often six credit cards. They drank $4.50 lattes from Starbucks. They applied to graduate school when they didn’t know what they wanted, but thought they could chew up time and figure out the whole career thing later. They were shocked when I told them they were going to have to work at least 45 years until Social Security kicked in. And they were disbelieving when I described the amount of money they would need to save for retirement. What retirement! The euphoric high of 2006 crashed with the recession in 2008 and the deteriorating job market in 2009, 2010 and 2011. This, combined with the inexorable increase in tuitions and room and board costs, left students riding a roller coaster job market and graduating with ever increasing debt.

What I learned from working with these students and their counselors has given me insights into the wider issue of job preparedness and as such has important implications not only for students and administrators, but for society as a whole.

A Call to Action

Lest it appear otherwise, I am not critical of the liberal arts. I am a graduate of Vassar College, one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the country, and I have a master’s degree from New York University. I have a deep appreciation for the critical thinking and writing skills that institutions like Vassar and NYU impart. In my ideal world, there would be a harmonious blending of the best of the liberal arts tradition with the best that applied fields of study such as STEM disciplines, business, computer science, biological sciences and education have to offer. What I would like to do is raise a call to action to higher education administrators across the country. I would urge them to proactively help students realize the benefit of their college investment and work to ensure that the jobs their graduates take on actually make use of their expensive educational training. 

My college coaching career began accidentally: In March of 2006, Drew University asked me to give a speech for Women’s History Month. To make the speech something students might actually use, I developed a list of 25 things young grads could do to survive their first job after college. I wanted the students to have the practical career advice my children and their friends had not received at college. This list was drawn from the behaviors of successful employees whom I had observed during my career. 

In doing my research, I spoke to employers who were annoyed at the juvenile behaviors and brash attitudes they saw in many young grads. Employers complained about “entitled” young twenty-something’s wearing sloppy or inappropriate clothes and flip flops and getting tipsy at the office holiday party. Colleagues in the Academy wanted an outside expert with experience and impressive credentials to underscore with their students many of the career points they had been trying to impart.

Eager to Learn

That first talk at Drew University was ultimately titled: “What Do You Do When the Devil Wears Prada? Tips to Survive Any Workplace.” It became one of my most requested lectures, and I gave it more than a dozen times from Barnard College in New York to the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

My lectures were practical, and dealt with work/life issues my students would face. The titles tell it all: 

  • “The Power of Networking: Making Connections That Count”
  • “Can You Have a Life? Career, Relationships and Children”
  • “Surviving Career Catastrophes: Getting Over Getting Fired, Downsized, Merged or Outsourced”

Some lectures were suggested by the college presidents, deans and career officers with whom I worked: The president of Stony Brook University was so concerned that her brilliant, first-generation students were being denied employment opportunities because of poor table manners that she asked me to conduct an etiquette seminar—over dinner—for 300 students in the school’s gym. I was impressed and humbled seeing those extraordinary students, many of whom had only been in this country three years, and were working two jobs and for whom English was a second language, taking notes and absorbing the information. Their questions on etiquette spoke to the cultural dilemmas they faced as young immigrants seeking to get ahead. 

That seminar entitled “Dining Etiquette: A Matter of Dollars and Sense” became my second most requested lecture.

Often colleges asked me to talk about “How Being a Woman Affected My Career” and “Women and Leadership”. There, I continued the discussion of financial self-reliance, empowerment and workplace survival. Equally important, I addressed sexual harassment and dating violence, a subject few colleges wanted to address, especially because dating abuse is endemic on American campuses and most victims are 16-24 year old women.

The most surprising thing I discovered was that the majority of students did not take notes. It didn’t matter the type of school or the region of the country. They did not automatically pull out notebooks from their back packs. Many sat passively waiting to be fed information. I never understood the reason: Perhaps they were used to receiving summaries of professors’ lecture notes, or perhaps they had been mesmerized by power point lectures. When I worked with career counseling staff, I made it a point to insure there were paper and pencils on hand for students to take notes.

The most exciting students I worked with were those in community colleges. Their eagerness to learn was inspiring and exhausting. They bombarded me with questions and comments. This was so different from the apathy I often encountered in traditional and more well off schools. The community college students’ behavior was all the more extraordinary considering that many were holding down two and sometimes three jobs. 

New Economic Reality

The years of 2006 and 2007 were a heady time. Then, in 2008, the tide began to turn, and the economy started to collapse. The schools whose career counseling staffs consisted of two or three graduate students working part-time in a few rooms far from the center of student life were ill-prepared for this change. Jobs for graduating seniors got very tight. It was the exception rather than the rule for graduating seniors to have jobs. Paid summer internships dried up. Meanwhile college tuition was increasing and so was student debt. There were fewer Starbucks lattes sold.

Students who had arrived in a euphoric mood their freshmen year in 2006 approached graduation in June 2009 with few or no job prospects. They had not taken advantage of the offerings the more enlightened career counseling offices had provided. They had not learned how to network, or how to interview, or how to prepare resumes. Their options were grim. They expected the career offices to be job placement agencies. Moving back home with Mom and Dad became the norm for thousands of students. For every job opening, there were dozens of graduating students, who were competing against each other as well as against the newly unemployed.

However the subjects I covered didn’t appreciably change, because workplace survival and life skills had always been my core themes. Now colleges were asking me to drill down further and customize workshops to meet the new economic reality their students were facing. The more enlightened schools asked me to work with their freshmen classes, to help these first year students become more career focused early in their college years.

Consequently, I expanded on my existing themes and included the following lectures: 

  • “Welcome to the World of Work: Career Strategies for a Lifetime”
  • “Job Search 2009: Where the Jobs Are; What Employers Look For and The Skills You Need”
  • “Handling Setbacks – Survival Tips”

The grim economy in 2009, 2010 and 2011 made it easier to get students’ attention. They knew they needed this information and without prompting some started to take notes. Liberal arts majors began to realize they were going to have to take a very different look at the world of work. It was now all about what was possible, not what was desirable. Travelling overseas following graduation was out of the question for many. Dreams were being put on hold.

Although the world was changing, many college career counseling offices and deans seemed slower to adapt. As I lectured around the country, I found only a handful of college administrators who realized that the growing clamor of students and parents for a tangible return on their tuition dollars was a legitimate demand.

The more enlightened campuses began moving those seldom-visited, ill-staffed career development offices to central locations where students could actually visit. They hired career development professionals who developed a variety of outreach programs designed to showcase students with local and regional employers. They harnessed the professional expertise of their alums and the experience of their recent graduates to conduct seminars and give students insight into the world after graduation. Many offices established partnerships with local and regional employers to arrange internships.

These far-sighted institutions realized that in addition to helping prepare students for careers, they also needed to give their students basic financial knowledge. Many of their first generation students were children of parents who had fallen victim to the housing crisis, buying homes they could not afford. These college administrators saw how crushing debt would affect the lives of their graduates for years to come, and they wanted to give their students the financial tools to manage their futures. They began offering courses in basic personal finance covering issues such as credit scores, investing, insurance, and how to buy a car.

It has been fascinating to work on American campuses during this period of great change and to see how enterprising students have thrived in this difficult environment. It has also been rewarding to support the work of creative career counseling professionals, who, often without sufficient support from senior administrators, are trying to motivate students early in their college years to become career-minded.

But much more needs to be done by both administrators and students alike so that graduates can realize the true benefit of their college investment. Deans at many liberal arts colleges need to become more career focused. And students themselves, particularly those at liberal arts colleges, need to become career minded early in their freshmen year and take advantage of the offerings career counseling offices provide. It is shameful and wasteful to see graduates of selective, expensive colleges doing part-time menial jobs ten years after leaving school. 

What they should be asking you

The following is a check list of questions students, and their parents, should ask administrators when they visit colleges.

1. What emphasis does the administration place on job preparation for students?

2. How early in a student’s academic career does career counseling start? Ideally career counseling should begin in the fall of freshmen year to prepare students for internships following the summer of freshmen year.

3. Are students career-focused their senior year? In one university, getting a job is regarded as a sixth course for all seniors.

4. What is the track record of the career counseling office in helping students get summer internships and jobs after graduation?

    • Does the office keep statistics of how many students are offered jobs?
    • How many students go to graduate school?
    • How many students do a gap year with the Peace Corps, Teach for America or similar organizations?
    • How many students have jobs when they graduate?

5. Does the career office work in tandem with the alumni office to network alumni as mentors and potential sources of employment. How actives is this network and how does it work?

6. Who manages the career counseling office? Are there professional career development officers or students working part-time?

7. How many students utilize the office?

8. Where is the office? Is it centrally located?

9. To whom does the Director of Career Counseling report? The higher the rank of the supervising person, the more importance the college places on this function.

10 Review the materials from the Career Office: They should include information on the correlation between jobs and majors. The office should offer programs to help students prepare resumes, cover letters, and provide training in interviewing.

11. Find out how employers regard the university or college. Does the college/university have programs with local and regional employers?

A college education is an investment, and everyone – students, parents, faculty and administrators – indeed society as a whole - should expect a return on that investment. As the motto of one New York City secondary school states: “Non scholae sed vitae discimus: Not for school, but for life we learn.”

—Dede Bartlett is director of A Better Chance, immediate past chair of the advisory board of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, former officer of two Fortune 100 companies, Exxon Mobil and Altria, and a frequent speaker on domestic violence issues to community and civic groups. A professional who has worked in many economic climates, Bartlett offers timely advice to students looking to succeed in difficult times.