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Continuing Education’s Leading Role in Career Services

Preparing students in higher education for the workforce no longer means simply providing them with appropriate accreditation. CE units now need to partner with career services to prepare students for the jobs they want.

Major U.S. universities are waking up to the fact that they will have to significantly expand their career services to respond to student demands. This awakening should not be lost on Continuing Education (CE) leaders, who are at the forefront of Workforce Development. 

This increased emphasis on career services is signaled by several recent developments. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2019-2020 Career Services Benchmark Report, university career services are migrating out of student affairs units into other units, mainly academic affairs. This shift recognizes (1) that career services are focused on student success after graduation rather than the health and welfare of students while they are matriculated, (2) that career services require an external face to regional employers that is typically uncharacteristic of student affairs offices, and (3) that career services compete for institutional funding against different metrics than those that apply to student services.  

There are other signs that career services need and are getting greater attention. Students and their parents, who have always cited “getting a good job” as the main reason to go to college, are increasingly looking at realistic returns on their investments in education, particularly as they take out student loans to fund their education. 

This ROI and the rising cost of college raises questions about the value of a college degree. Accreditation agencies are therefore demanding transparency in real student outcomes, measured beyond graduation rates and grades to real-world outcomes such as first employment. To be truly learner-centered, universities must respond to this primary motivation to learn. 

Employers are increasingly depending on universities and colleges to supply the talent they need to thrive in their regional economies. Satisfying regional demands for workforce-relevant talent requires outreach usually beyond the scope of what student affairs offices are capable of supplying.

In October 2017, the University of California, Irvine, after a strenuous review of its career services provisions, began to address the issues it raised. First, a new position was created: Vice Provost for Career Pathways, reporting directly to the Provost. Second, it renamed its career services unit to the Division of Career Pathways (DCP) to place it among other divisions, like the Division of Undergraduate Education and the Graduate Division. Third and most importantly, it placed career services under the same administrative responsibility as Continuing Education—the Division of Continuing Education (DCE). The responsibilities of the Dean of Continuing Education and the Vice Provost of Career Pathways were assigned to one person, thereby assuring a high degree of cooperation between the two units. This administrative union is both unique in American higher education and quite natural. Both divisions are concerned mainly with student success after graduation and share many of the same impulses to serve the local and regional economies and workforces.  

After four years of this joint administrative arrangement, the benefits are clearly apparent. First, the arrangement reinforced to the whole campus the elevated stature and importance of both divisions. The new Vice Provost gained a seat in the Provost’s cabinet, thereby providing a voice to aspiring matriculated undergraduates, CE students and working adults. Second, the union created more efficient interactions between UCI and local employers by providing both talent acquisition and employee training under one umbrella. Third, it also elevated the career services required by CE students while providing a unified interface for employers who sought not both entry-level talent and experienced. This has increased employer engagement with UCI. 

The DCP benefits significantly from marketing services provided by DCE, which has a team of 22 full-time-equivalent employees and the ability to reach both students and employers. 

The DCP has also been able to leverage the DCE’s pedagogical resources, primarily in online education, by offering many of its career-related workshops and information sessions on an online platform. For instance, the DCP collaborated with the DCE to produce an online series for employers called “How to Host an Intern,” which provided employers and their staff with information about helping students gain the most from student internships. 

Working together, the DCE and DCP have acquired a jointly used set of service technologies, including Handshake, VMock resume evaluation software, and Big Interview, all serving both matriculated students (36,000) and Continuing Education students (35,000 per year).

The DCP also indirectly benefits the DCE’s efforts to create a digital credentialing (badging) system, identifying skills needed in the workplace and creating competency-based digital credentials certifying that students have the relevant skills. These efforts have concentrated on the skills gap that students must overcome when they get a new job.  

Whatever the organizational position of career services within a university, with CE as a leader and  campus career services as a partner, we must create a robust career services as a complement to the courses and programs they offer. We can no longer offer just educational opportunities—we must provide a nimbus of surrounding services that lead students to the right programs and help them translate the learning they acquire for jobs to which they aspire. In creating these services, we will face the threats coming from the private sector (such as the “career services for life” guarantee by the University of Phoenix) to attract more students and help our students succeed at each transition in their lives. 

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