Originally published: LinkedIn | By Jeff Selingo | Jul 10, 2017

In recent years as the price of college has spiraled ever upward and median family income has remained flat, the ability to measure the return on investment of the bachelor’s degree has taken on new importance. Prospective students and their parents now study the financial benefits of higher education and the career outcomes of graduates of the campuses they’re considering as thoroughly as they scrutinize a college’s academic offerings, social life, and location.

Yet despite the concerns of students and employers, providing career assistance remains low on the to-do list for many institutional leaders, according to a new paper I authored for Entangled Solutions, an education consultancy, about improving career services. (Click here to download a free copy of the full study.)

40 percent of recent graduates never even visited their career offices.

On many campuses, the career center is tucked away in a forgotten corner of campus, starved for funds and talent. It usually sits under the student affairs division and competes for attention with new and expensive challenges surrounding campus mental health, sexual assault, and student activism. Nearly all of the other offices under the student affairs umbrella are focused on the undergraduate experience. Meanwhile, the career center is in a unique in-between position—serving students who are on their way out of school but not yet alumni.

One reason the career center is an afterthought on many campuses is that colleges entered the career-planning business somewhat reluctantly in the years after World War II. At the time, campus enrollments were ballooning thanks to the GI Bill, and Corporate America wanted an easy way to recruit soon-to-be graduates. Campuses set up offices to deal with the influx of employers, and eventually their functions expanded to help students find jobs by curating job listings, reviewing résumés, and setting up mock interviews. Many career offices also added the word “placement” to their names, a term they have since shed so they wouldn’t give the appearance of promising students jobs after graduation.

As a result, career services on most campuses are nothing more than information repositories in an era when students can often find much of the same information on their smartphones in a matter of seconds. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that 40 percent of recent graduates (those who graduated between 2010 and 2016) never even visited their career offices, according to the Gallup-Purdue Index. Among those who made a visit, only 17 percent found it helpful.

The students most disappointed in career services, according to the Gallup-Purdue Index? First-generation students, who often lack the social capital to network for jobs, and undergraduates with heavy debt loads, who need to find work after graduation to pay off their loans—both groups that are critical to broader student success initiatives on campuses.

These findings from the Gallup-Purdue Index, and shifting student and parental attitudes about the purpose of college, make clear that career services desperately needs to be overhauled on many campuses. Given the increasing emphasis on graduate outcomes and the need for colleges to prove their value to prospective students, schools can no longer afford to treat career services as the campus stepchildren.

Colleges need to adopt a new approach to the career services. Among potential paths forward:

  1. Integrate career planning with the curriculum. Career planning offerings need to be accessible early on in the undergraduate curriculum to help students realize the wide range of career choices available to them.
  2. Offer vocational options alongside the formal curriculum. Colleges need to encourage and formalize vocational work programs through internships, co-ops, and even the work-college model, where students work on campus or in local businesses to pay for school.
  3. Assist students in transferring their learning from the classroom to the job. The ability to transfer knowledge between the classroom and the workplace and back again is what gets new college graduates hired, because it allows them to show in job interviews what they cannot easily display on their résumés or in applications. But college students find that task particularly difficult because they haven’t had to make connections between the disparate capabilities they have acquired.
  4. Employ technology to personalize career planning for students. Not every undergraduate needs to look for a job in the same way, at the same time. Students in different majors approach the job search differently, just as companies in different industries recruit in different ways. Colleges need to abandon the one-size-fits-all approach for students and personalize the experience using technology.
  5. Turn career services into lifelong services. Colleges can help graduates by creating “plug and play” lifelong-learning platforms that alumni can gain access to throughout their careers. These platforms would not be simple continuations of the tired and dated services offered by career offices, but instead would include courses, mentors, and credentials that could benefit a current career or help jump-start a new one.

As we approach the end of the second decade of the new millennium, the higher-education market is shifting and the economy is changing in fundamental ways. Career paths for this generation of students are no longer as clear and straightforward as they were in the past. That’s why colleges must focus on career development for students. If they don’t, they will be yielding the field to outside ventures and losing a vital opportunity to create a life-long—and essential—connection with alumni.

This post is an excerpt from the Reimagining the Career Center: How Colleges Can Better Engage and Prepare a New Generation of Students for the 21st Century WorkforceA free download of the paper is available here.

Jeffrey Selingo is author of There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow. You can follow his writing here, on Twitter @jselingo, on Facebook, and sign up for free newsletters about the future of higher education at jeffselingo.com.

He is a regular contributor to the Washington Post’s Grade Point blog, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities.