I recently attended a conference on student transition and retention, and I was blown away by some of the work that institutions are doing to retain students and help them persist to graduation, particularly in the areas of student advising. As one of the presenters put it, we shouldn’t be letting our students wait until they have a degree in their hand and walking across the stage to start thinking about what they will do next; rather, it is our job as educators to help them make informed career decisions well before they even reach graduation. I wholeheartedly agree.
With inspiration from the conference, a personal interest in career coaching, and an institutional need to better support students to graduation, I’ve been doing a lot of research on student persistence and career advising. While it is not surprising that many theorists and professionals in the field have identified a correlation, what I didn’t expect was that so many institutions have created specialized positions and programs in Residence and other student service locations that provide specialized advising and outreach to students. For example, Lewis and Clark College have a senior level student staff position, a Resident Career Advisor, which offers weekly office hours to review students’ resumes and cover letters, and provides transitional career coaching, in addition to their Resident Advisor duties. These student staff receive required monthly on-going training from professionals in the Career Centre, and are responsible for creating all of the passive program relating to career development and success in the community. At the University of Miami, there is a specialized professional staff position, called the Residence Academic and Career Advisor. This role is dedicated to offering residence students advising opportunities relevant to their career paths and graduation objectives, including helping them triage academic concerns, collaborating with faculty and staff, and assisting students in the development of a career plan.
These positions have been created out of an identified need to help students with career clarity. Literature in the field of retention research suggests that student commitment to education and career goals is perhaps the strongest factor connected to persistence to degree completion (Cuseo, 2003; Wyckoff, 1999). In a conference session presented by the University of Kansas examining the role of career services in student retention, they too looked at career decision making being directly connected to self-efficacy and retention through a pilot study. Based on their research from the study, career services have a significant positive relationship to factors related to retention. Specifically, career competence, often achieved through career coaching, helps explain why students choose to persist and can predict campus engagement. This study has allowed the institution to create and implement a Career Integration Model for advising their students, emphasizing a) Now – assessing interests, values, personality, and strengths; b) Future – exploring careers, information, job markets, and establishing career goal; and c) Action – creating a strategic action plan to achieve goals, engaging in hands-on career learning experiences, and developing necessary skills to be successful (University of Kansas). Moving forward, with this knowledge, the university is hoping to integrate career advising and support into other campus services. Residence may even be an option.
Retention and persistence research also tells us that institutions need to focus more on second year students when it comes to career advising. Often times, we have a tendency to think of our first-year students as needing the most transitional support, but our second year students are actually at a stage of “transitional knowing” – moving from the absolute thinking of the first year to the independent and contextual thinking of the upper year (Baxter-Magolda, 1992), which directly correlates to career support. This is further validated by a relevant study, which suggests that 16%-19% of second-year students at a four-year institution leave their first institution at the end of their second year (Noel-Levitz, 2013). In looking for recommendations to reduce attrition rates, many of the students showed an interest in acquiring career-related assistance in particular areas – of the 3,870 students surveyed, 77.8% identified wanting work experience or internships; 65.8% asked to define goals suited to their major or career interests; 65.3% wanted to explore advantages and disadvantages of career choices; and 57.3% sought to prepare a written academic plan for graduation (Noel-Levitz, 2013). Dr. Mari Normyle (2014), the Assistant Vice President for Retention Solutions with Ruffalo Noel-Levitz, was was surprised by these statistics and is encouraging educators to use this as a reminder of the critical role that advising and career development play in our second-year students’ success.
I believe that second year students often live in the ‘murky middle’ and deserve more attention than we tend to provide, as they aren’t targeted for specialized support as frequently as first-year students and they are not as close to graduation as upper years’, but I do think this notion of helping students define and act upon career goals is important for learners at every academic level. In particular, I believe it’s our responsibility to help students course correct or better align with their career trajectory, especially considering we ask students at 15 years old to start taking required classes that will dictate if they can be admitted into specialized post-secondary programs. Teenagers are now required to make decisions that will impact their career and entire lives, which may or may not truly align with their interests and skills. Unfortunately, students’ early occupational decisions may be impacted by extrinsic factors, such as parents or income, rather than by careful reflection, assessment, and a true understanding of their abilities (Cuseo). This can be a significant influence on a student’s ability to persist, and can sometimes lead to a change in majors all together. Although changing majors may positively correlate to the outcome of persistence to graduation, it does still impact the time in which it takes a student to walk across the stage (Cuseo). When we consider that over 50% of all students entering university with a declared major change their minds at least once before graduation (Foote, 1980; Gordon, 1984; Noel, 1985), that is a lot of extra time that we are investing in supporting students, and a later start to a career for many.
Knowing this, I have asked myself what we, as educators, can do to help students persist. I strongly agree with Cuseo's perspective, which suggests that instead of putting as much pressure on students to make decisions about their career before they enter post-secondary, we should invest more effort into helping them make these decisions during their college and university experience. When we connect this back to the idea of career decision self-efficacy, this would help students believe in their abilities to make career-related decisions and complete career-related tasks (University of Kansas) with guided support. Furthermore, for departments or institutions that value Baxter-Magolda’s (2010) theory of self-authorship, career advising fits well within the concept of supporting students in developing their “internal capacity to define one’s belief, identity, and social relations”. Particularly in regards to identity and understanding Who am I?, I would argue that career competency is certainly an essential part of becoming the author of one’s own life and creating a professional identity. Furthermore, in my eyes advising is a form of teaching, and I agree that specialized advising programs “…promote learning and development in students by encouraging experiences which lead to intellectual growth, the ability to communicate effectively, appropriate career choices, leadership development, and the ability to work independently and collaborative” (Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education, 2012). In my opinion, as we become more modern, this may no longer look like traditional advising; rather, I think we should be working to find ways to incorporate advising models into our everyday positions as educators, so we can help students with the occupational concepts, such as exploration of life and career goals (O'Banion, 1972; 1996).
Dr. W. Habley (2010) suggests that effective advising cannot be done in isolation; rather, it requires the coordination and collaboration among units across campuses. With keeping this in mind, how do we find ways to bridge the gap between career services and our other departments on campus, recognizing that it positively supports student persistence? Are there ways that we can ensure that all departments have best practices in student advising, even if that is not their primary role? If advising provides students with a one-on-one interaction with a concerned representative of the institution (Habley, 2010), should they need to go to one specific service for that support when they already have established a meaningful connection with a different department or support staff on campus? While I don’t think we should decentralize our advising services by any means, I do wonder if there are opportunities to include specialized advisors in high-traffic student service locations. Perhaps each faculty has a specialized advisor, where a student can drop in while they are already in the building meeting a professor for additional support. Maybe our student experience office staff who work with students on co-curricular records, alternative spring breaks, and orientation programs have a dedicated advisor for those that frequent the office regularly. If we think about the high-density living of the students in our residences who are already walking into our buildings to eat in the dining hall, pick up lock out keys, and meet about positive engagement or behavioural concerns, perhaps there is value in having someone present there as well.
I truly believe as educators we have a responsibility to support our students, at all year levels, in becoming engaged leaders, accountable citizens, and successful individuals. If career advising is now an aspect of the post-secondary experience that students are craving more of, looking for outreach on, and needing to persist to graduation, we must challenge ourselves to think outside of the box to find unique ways to be more deliberate and impactful in offering these services. This could include offering more opportunities for students to learn to write a resume, incorporating career goal setting in staff one-on-ones and development plans, or creating opportunities for students to have career advising conversations at various locations across campus. As we continue to move towards placing an emphasis on intentional curricula for co-curricular engagement, measurable learning outcomes, and specific assessment efforts, considering ways that career development fits into these objectives seems like a meaningful conversation and a worthwhile effort. After all, there are not many things more meaningful to a true educator than knowing you helped students learn, grow and walk across that stage with a plan for success in the future.
2016 already feels like a blur, especially this summer. I'm having a hard time accepting that in a week we will be well into August RLS Training when it feels like our students just moved out of Residence yesterday. Between conferences and vacation, I'm finally taking a moment to reflect on all the excitement of Summer 2016 and appreciate the learning opportunities I was afforded.
A creative educator striving to enhance the holistic student experience and committed to exploring personal strengths and fulfillment.