Reflections on—and Possibilities for—an Unprecedented Fall

How the hardships being faced by higher education this fall will effect student opportunity in the long term—and how career services can help.

By Christine Y Cruzvergara

It’s now a cliche to remark on the unprecedented nature of this time—a global pandemic, bleak economic fallout, and a long-overdue racial reckoning have forced those in higher education to reconsider almost all predictions, processes, and practices of previous years.

As I discussed in a fireside chat with Angel Pérez, the CEO of NACAC, this is the first year enrollment is a complete unknown—students are weighing options for whether and where to attend college up until the first day of class. Campuses with plans to open have had to close within weeks. What seems like a year of unknowns in fact has a few notable guarantees: the financial impact felt by most institutions will in turn be felt by career educators. Virtual engagement will be the norm. And students will be facing one of the most depressed, daunting job markets in almost a century. 

In late July, Handshake surveyed 574 of our higher education partners to find out how their institutions were coping with the changes brought by COVID-19. You can read our full findings here.

In our survey we focused on these themes: 

  • What are the changes career centers perceive in their student population?
  • How are career services leaders and teams being affected by the financial hardships anticipated by institutions?
  • How will the current circumstances affect the future of the education-to-employment pathway?

When I saw the results of the report, there were some unsurprising findings (budgets are being cut and schools are being asked to do more with less), but also a few opportunities, especially when it comes to how career services teams are assessing their own value. 

Operating within constraints

Unsurprisingly, our survey found that career center budgets and operations have experienced a significant hit based on real or anticipated enrollment declines due to COVID-19. 

  • 50% have had their budget cut
  • 57% have had a hiring freeze. 
  • Furloughs (19%), salary cuts (11%), and layoffs (7%) are also happening, although less often—though as we continue to talk with our partners this fall we suspect these numbers are growing.  

It’s clear that the budget reductions affecting the majority of our partners are leading many to think about how to become more effective and efficient with their time and resources. 41% of career centers surveyed are considering how technology might help with efficiency or scale in light of these cuts. 

At the same time, however, we are finding that some individual career center staff are frustrated with the natural constraints of virtual engagement, especially as it changes the nature of tasks they used to perform: what does work look like when a career fair is virtual? How can time be used more effectively now that your students (and potentially your team) are remote? How can we best promote our services without a campus presence?

These are important questions to consider. Those of you who’ve known me since before my time at Handshake know that I often spoke about the possibilities of what could be created if we came together as one team. Now is not the time to try and replicate previous in-person processes—instead, it’s a chance to reimagine the ways we help our students discover and connect to opportunity. 

This may mean you won’t need to staff events in the same way or put in the same hours to create programming, for example. But these changes can be a good thing. In the process, you might realize your value is in scaling the education you provide for your students or deeply understanding your student population and your ability to reach them in more nuanced, targeted ways. 

The long-term effects of short-term cuts

Across-the-board cuts and reductions to career education in a time of economic recession are short-sighted, to say the least. Budget allocation speaks to the true values of an institution, especially in critical times. 

Notably, in our survey career leaders predicted that the top three outcomes of cuts will directly influence institutional goals around equity and student outcomes:

  1. Fewer students securing jobs and internships
  2. Immediate to long-term negative impact on social mobility for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds or for historically underrepresented students
  3. Immediate impact of fewer students applying for jobs and internships. 

We know that investment in career success pays dividends for the institution by ensuring students are adequately supported as they enter the job market. Investing in—or simply sustaining—career education is also a long-term strategy to increase campus affinity and, in turn, generate more alumni engagement, investment, and giving into the future. 

Surfacing the value of career education

While those in the career education space see clearly that cutting budget is short sighted, it’s also important to recognize that leaders at colleges and universities are trying desperately to showcase institutional return on investment (ROI), shore up enrollment, and ensure the viability of their institutions. As such, it is imperative that career professionals be ready to showcase the impact they are making to advance the mission of the institution, we well as evidence of their own success.

Luckily, most career centers are keeping their own value to the institution at the forefront of their plans. When asked their priorities during COVID, career center leaders noted their top two were:

  1. Helping my career services team transition to working remotely.
  2. Keeping institutional leadership aware of the career center’s value in light of shifting financial news.

Indeed, by July, 19.5% of career centers had already been asked to demonstrate their value to the university since COVID-19; a full 40.5% planned to do so in the coming months. 

Yet, when asked how they planned to show their value, career centers were split in their approach between showing evidence of engagement and evidence of outcomes.

For many, showing value is simply a matter of showing how much they are doing: 86% say they’ll try to show increased virtual engagement programming and 67% will try to show increased 1:1 engagement. 

Others are focusing on why it matters by emphasizing evidence of outcomes: 59% of career centers ranked evidence of more placements and 55% ranked evidence of more applications as the metric to prove their value and show institutional leadership their progress in moving students forward towards action. 

My advice to career centers at this time when everyone is facing constraints? Focus on efforts that lead to greatest impact and outcomes, and then tie progress directly back to the institution’s goals. 

If we put ourselves in the shoes of the president or board and ask what metrics they’d want to see as evidence of real progress towards student career success it often centers around four core data points:

  • Increased connections between students and employers that lead to real opportunities
  • Increased number of applications by your students 
  • Evidence that meeting with the career center led to concrete action or progress
  • Strong internship and employment outcomes 

Prioritizing Black and Latinx students

My final insight revolves around how career services might approach the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and structural racism. Given how interrelated the issues are, it’s imperative to focus on how to support Black and Latinx students this semester and beyond. 

When we surveyed our partners in July, we found that about 32% of career centers were providing additional support for Black and Latinx students and that about 45% planned to in the fall. 

At the same time, 91% said they had not seen an increase of Black and Latinx students seeking their services in the summer and over 50% had not yet increased support for these students (with 10% saying there’s no need from their current student population).

As career center leaders continue to approach their work and services with a new critical eye, they may need to change the questions they are asking about how well they are supporting students:

  • Why haven’t we seen more Black and Latinx students seek out our services?
  • Do these students know about our services?
  • Do they feel comfortable seeking support from our career center team?
  • Do they believe we’ll understand their situation or be able to help them?
  • Where are they going instead? Have we connected with those folks to ensure they have the info needed to support Black and Latinx students?

With COVID-19 making unprecedented impact on every institution, career leaders have an opportunity to remind their senior administrators of the critical gap career education fills for the institution and most importantly, for our current and future students.