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Liberal Arts Career Services: A Solid Return on Investment for Students and Institutions

In the past decade especially, liberal arts degrees have been discounted as inferior in securing job placement and career readiness. Institutions need to reevaluate their approach to career services’ to illustrate the value of the liberal arts. 

Last spring, as the global pandemic deepened, higher education and the college labor market were upended. It was only a matter of time before these disruptions inflamed student and family concerns about higher education’s return-on-investment proposition. Liberal arts colleges are particularly vulnerable in these discussions because many majors are still considered “risky” by students and their parents.

Career centers at institutions of higher education have an opportunity—an obligation, in fact—to help launch students for successful lives after graduation. However, career centers are often vastly underutilized in telling stories that demonstrate the value of a liberal arts degree, amplify the academic mission, make the case for enrollment, support retention, and assuage students’ and parents’ fears about their professional futures. 

While campus leaders across the country responded to the pandemic with critical changes in teaching and learning, technology, and health and safety, the issue of students graduating into unemployment was sidelined. At some universities and colleges, career centers were closed. Some staff were temporarily laid off, while others were furloughed. 

Given the urgency around enrollment, retention and the college labor market, it may be time to revisit how your institution prioritizes undergraduate career preparation. Done well, begun early in the college career, and connected to your academic mission, career readiness initiatives can have a transformative impact on students. 

The unfortunate reality is that career services aren’t universally effective. 

Traditionally, career centers have been the only responsible party helping students land their first job. Campus or college leadership could check the box that such a service existed, and ideally faculty and academic advisors would refer students to career services for support. In most cases, students themselves elect whether to participate in career services or not. Liberal arts students who tend to be less career-minded, they are less likely to opt-in. There tends to be very little connection between career services and the institution’s academic mission, so career and major exploration are rarely discussed in the classroom. Faculty, while well-meaning, may not be able to confidently answer students’ questions about transferable skills or career opportunities–even for those who will graduate from their major. 

Liberal arts students enjoy engaging with the discovery process of their academic curriculum. They are more motivated by interest, purpose, meaning, and impact than employability. These qualities are assets for students, but they also present challenges in supporting their career development. Career paths are much less self-evident. Typically, we see these students thinking about career preparation much later in their college careers. Alumni report non-linear career paths, which attests to the fact that the skills students receive with the liberal arts degree allow them flexibility as they pursue their own unique paths. 

In our response to these factors, career centers have missed a significant opportunity with liberal arts students. Career centers lack a holistic approach that supports early personal and professional exploration. So often, the focus is on applying and preparing for internships and jobs so much that we haven’t developed tools to assist students in discovering themselves and finding their sense of purpose. Centralized, campus-wide career centers have had the tendency to think of liberal arts students as disorganized and indecisive, while they turn their attention to business and engineering majors, who appear more focused as a result of the early career decisions they made when selecting their school or college.

It’s also important to recognize that requirements for entry-level jobs have changed. It used to be that a college degree would be enough to set you up for an entry-level position. With a bachelor’s degree, a student will be taken seriously, but the degree alone is no longer enough to land the job. After the 2008 recession, organizations slashed training budgets and outsourced core functions. Millennials tend to change jobs more frequently than previous generations, and companies can no longer afford to train a new hire for 12-18 months when that new hire may depart within two years. For our graduates, that means experience requirements are higher. Entry-level job candidates must demonstrate that they can be up and running in new positions on a much shorter timeline. Put simply, the bar is higher for entry-level employees.

There’s an inherent conflict here. Liberal arts students need time to explore and find themselves while employers expect focus and preparation. This underscores the need for career services to partner with faculty and administrators to create a language and framework for weaving career preparation into academic curriculum. At the minimum, the curriculum should include career and life design courses beginning in the first year that support self-exploration, reflection on how to maximize the college experience, and how the degree program develops critical skills needed in the workforce. Full-scale integration of career development into the curriculum guarantees every student has what they need to be employable at graduation. 

For students of color and other underrepresented groups, the stakes are even greater. We must acknowledge that students from underprivileged families are often too occupied with part-time employment and sometimes family obligations to make time for extra-curricular career preparation. Curricular integration supports all students and can help resolve equity issues.

Successfully launching students into new jobs and graduate school placements is key to addressing the timely and continuing issue of return on investment for students and their families. As you reflect on your college’s values and the place of career development among them, consider that you cannot go wrong investing in your college and your students with an intentional, proactive service that helps students build confidence in their skills and degree while preparing them for the dynamic world of work. Elevating and celebrating students’ career potential and outcomes is good for students and good for the reputation of the liberal arts, and indispensable for engaging alumni and cultivating donors. 


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