7 Reasons HBCU Presidents Must Support Career Centers

(Originally written 4.12.2015)

The HBCU Career Center conducted a survey to learn more about the state of career centers on the campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). The survey results revealed an interesting dilemma faced by career centers. Of the 33 respondents, 76% agreed, somewhat agreed or strongly agreed that career services on HBCU campuses are a priority for executive leadership. However, in the same survey, 64% felt that the career services budget was definitely or somewhat inadequate to meet the university’s needs. That is an indication to me that while some HBCU leadership say that career services are important, they are not making the commitment to put the adequate resources and funds behind career services.  Based on my experience, this is not just a HBCU issue.  It is an issue for most of America’s colleges.

Despite low graduation rates, significant financial burden on graduates and more public discourse about the value of college degrees, many executives have not yet made the connection between career programming and student success.

Have I seen some changes in the last eight years since I started The HBCU Career Center to focus on career development for the diverse community? Yes; I do see HBCU leadership starting to pay greater attention to the programs on their campuses that are designed to produce career-ready graduates.  However, most HBCU’s still have a long way to go to realize the connections between the long term sustainability of our institutions, enrollment, retention, graduation rates, alumni giving and career programming,  Here are 7 reasons HBCU Presidents must support career centers on their campuses.

Career Programming in Enrollment Management Strategy

I often say that the college career center is the campus department that has reason to interact with students from Freshman to Forever. There never needs to be an end to the relationship between students and the career centers.  Professional career staff can play a significant role in the enrollment management process in a number of ways.  Some examples include connecting early with prospective students through open houses and orientation programs, crafting 4-year graduation strategies and helping students find their first part-time jobs as college students and their first jobs as career professionals. Colleges that are serious about marketing their academic programs as a means to a successful professional life in the future, connect students with career development programs early. If the ultimate goal is gainful employment and long term career satisfaction, why would career centers not be considered part of the university’s overall enrollment management strategy? By engaging career centers in the enrollment path, we are immediately building a pipeline of successful professional alumni.

Last best opportunity to improve student satisfaction with their overall college experience.

Have you ever spoken with a dissatisfied new college graduate? From residence life, professors, cost or financial aid; you name it, students and new graduates will find things to complain about. However, I have found, that ultimately at the core of new alumni disappointment, is confusion and apprehension about  the perceived value of the college degree they have just earned from your college.  This value for most new graduates is immediately about how they will land that first job or transition into graduate school.  In most cases, the overwhelming majority of new graduates don’t know what to do with the degree they just earned.  Campus career centers are uniquely positioned to support new graduates with the college to career or grad school transition.  Through career center operations, staff routinely help students understand the value of the degree they just earned, help them identify their marketable skills and launch their careers.

Graduates can use career centers for life.

In the same survey of career centers we learned that 97% of these career centers provide career services to alumni. This is a phenomenal opportunity for new graduates to leave campus knowing that their college remains a professional resource forever. This is not really the case for any other department on campus except for maybe the Registrar where copies of transcripts will be purchased over a life time. For the overwhelming majority of colleges, career centers offer lifetime career support to alumni. In the current evolving workplace, where employees are expected to re-skill often, career centers are a reminder to alumni of the longer term value of their Alma mater and reconnect them to training opportunities on campus through academic programs.

Success of your graduates promotes your campus and your programs to prospective students.

I have listened to university leaders including trustees and presidents brag about their successful alumni – as well they should.  To speak about the success of alumni, is to speak about the name those alumni have made for themselves professionally. Go to any college website and notice how they brag about the professional success of their alumni. No alumni will make the “Distinguished Alumni” list for just being a good parent or just for being a graduate. “Distinguished Alumni” lists are always about career and life success. The further you can take the name of your Alma mater as an alumni, the greater your chance of being listed among the successful alumni. The career center on campus helps universities set expectations for life and career success for students beyond college. By promoting alumni success stories or engaging alumni with students as mentors or career advocates, career centers play a role in developing future distinguished alumni who ultimately model the way for other students. Expectation of and envisioning professional and career success in life after college, is a key driver for student retention.

Career centers can transform new alumni into giving alumni.

Working with the career center staff is a great opportunity to engage new graduates into becoming giving alumni. It is through their transition into work and graduate schools that students will understand the value of the skills they developed on your campus. If alumni experience and understand the role your campus played in their personal and professional growth, it is easier to ask for their sustaining support. Since successful career centers help students with their transitions into the workplace, these new alumni become champions and advocates for their Alma mater where they work. I have worked with alumni to help career centers develop job shadow and mentoring opportunities, design and present workshops and be champions inside their companies to recruit interns and other professionals from their Alma mater.  These relationships with alumni start out simple, but can transition into bigger opportunities for collaboration. An effective career center team can assist very effectively with this kind of relationship building.

Career center as a major gateway into corporate relationships.

During my fifteen years working with career centers, I have been fortunate to foster and facilitate great relationships between students, alumni, faculty and industry.  I have seen first hand the value that a cutting edge career center can bring to campus through innovative employer partnership programs.  University presidents and executive leadership who understand the value of career centers in sponsored programming are big supporters of career programming on campus.  The bottom line is that if employers are satisfied with the work-ready professionals your college is producing, there are win-win  opportunities that would be of longer term interest to HBCU Presidents.  These opportunities which can be both inside and outside the classroom, are limited only by the collaborative and innovative capacity of your career center staff.

Career center outcomes is an assessment tool for the entire university.

HBCU Presidents should know that feedback from employers on the preparedness of lack of preparedness of their students and alumni, is a window into the entire university. Whether employers are sharing feedback on students they meet at career fairs, on-campus interviews, for internships or full time careers; the responses and feedback is valuable for all campus constituents. The extent to which students are workplace-ready or graduate school-ready, is the extent to which your campus can attract future students, raise money and engage employer partners. Presidents need to be evaluating how the anecdotes from faculty about student outcomes actually match up with what employer and industry partners are saying?

Our HBCU campuses are under a microscope.  Too many believe our campuses are too costly, are draining scarce resources and are no longer relevant in the American landscape.  I don’t agree.  However, I do believe that some HBCU leadership do not yet embrace the evolutions taking place in higher education and in the world of work.  As such, the students graduating are under prepared for a competitive job search and often struggle to transition successfully into the world of work.

Again, this is not just an issue at HBCU’s.  It is something many colleges and universities are struggling with at this time.  The difference for HBCU’s is that our very existence is at stake and there really is not much time remaining for leadership to understand this imperative.  HBCU’s have for almost two centuries played a critical role in developing  the American workforce.  We must continue to do that with renewed emphasis on career development to play our role in re-skilling America.