Reimagining College Career Centers: From Administrative Hubs to Recruiting Launchpads

Part 5 of The Case for Inventing a New Form of Work Experience: the Externship
Matt Wilkerson | Co-Founder & CEO of Extern
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In my last article, I explored the purpose of getting a college degree and why higher education today is structured the way it is. Here, I examine some of the challenges associated with college career centers and why they fail to provide true value to students who understand the importance of career development.

It's no secret that most college students are on their own when it comes to getting hired. Without the right network and resources, this often means facing a resume black hole, where they submit hundreds of applications that never seem to elicit responses from employers. If the point of college is to get a job, then it is only logical to examine how universities today are supporting hiring outcomes for students.

How Do Students Find Jobs After College?

At Extern, we surveyed over 300 college students in our network to ask how they found their first internships.

  • 37% found their first internship credited an online job board.
  • 25% said it was through a family or friend network.  
  • Shockingly, in 2024, less than 20% credited their colleges with helping them secure an internship.

In an era where student debt is soaring (on average exceeding $30,000 per borrower) because college tuition has increased at twice the rate of inflation, shouldn't colleges play a more pivotal role in bridging education and employment?

The finger points squarely at College Career Centers.

The Career Center Machine: Process Over Outcomes

College and university career centers were set up to be the bridge between a student’s higher education and employment.  But they have become afterthoughts – tacked on appendages that focus on logistics over student job outcomes. Today, most college career centers face a number of challenges in providing students with meaningful professional experiences.

In a recent survey we conducted at Extern, we asked 200 students from our Externship programs about their experiences with university career centers.  Students were split about 1/3 across three buckets:

  • 34% feel their career center doesn't closely collaborate with professors or departments, viewing it as just a general resource for all majors.
  • 30% found their career centers were highly beneficial for general resume workshops and interview preparation.
  • 38% feel that there is some collaboration between their professors/department and the career center to connect students with specialized job opportunities. And yet, despite several students deeming career centers "very useful," most students looked for jobs on their own, with 39% securing their first internships through online applications

As one student put it, "Career Centers? They're cool, have mock interviews, but sometimes feel generic. Still gotta hustle myself online and network like crazy, but they're a good starting point."

Why do Career Centers Fall Short of Equipping Students for a Competitive Job Market?

It's clear that career centers need to evolve beyond organizing job fairs and resume-improvement sessions. So why haven't they? Let's take a look at some of the top reasons why career centers are failing to provide the right kind of career development.

1. Severe Underfunding

The biggest challenge is underfunding and lack of resources. A study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that the average student-to-career staff ratio at colleges is approximately 1,889-to-one. This staggering ratio highlights the lack of resources allocated to career services, making it difficult for staff to provide personalized guidance and support to each student. 

2. Non-Specialized Staff

Career center staff often lack specialized knowledge in the diverse industries they serve, which can hinder their ability to offer industry-specific advice and connections.

3. Poor Integration Into University-wide Goals

Career centers are too far removed from the university’s central organization and institution-wide goals.  This often results in a lack of accountability and a lack of influence.  The services that career centers provide are seen as supplementary versus a mandatory part of college experience. If career centers held more of an industry-liaison function that aimed to integrate work experiences in departmental courses, then this would be a major accelerant in students getting professional experience.  This would only be possible with institutional leadership that aligns objectives and results between departments and the career center.

4. Administrative Focus

But most career centers have evolved into administrative hubs, primarily organizing events and interviews rather than offering in-depth career counseling and job placement services. This shift towards administrative tasks detracts from the centers' ability to provide personalized guidance and mentorship, crucial elements for effective career development. The focus on event organization and logistics, while important, does not substitute for individualized career planning and industry-specific networking opportunities.

5. "Superficial” Industry Partnerships 

At career fairs organized by the career centers, companies tend to send representatives from their HR departments rather than employees who are directly involved in the work that interests students. No offense to HR staff, but students who go to career fairs want to speak to the people who are doing the jobs they are considering after graduation or for an internship.  But the reality is that, similar to taking on lots of student interns and externs, asking employees to take time away from their jobs to travel to a campus career fair is costly and burdensome.

6. Too Little Ownership Beyond Listing Job Opportunities

The platform Handshake has been widely adopted by career centers and campus recruiters for its efficiency in organizing and managing career-related events, job postings, and interviews. While it ostensibly bridges the gap between students and potential employers, it is primarily geared towards simplifying administrative processes for career center staff.  This has led to an over-reliance on process-driven strategies in career centers.  Very few students would attribute their success in landing a job to Handshake.  To them it’s just a job board, and the frustration of sending in lots of resumes without hearing any response (what I call the “resume black hole”) still exists on Handshake just as it would on any other job board tool.  In 2022, ran an experiment that showed only 12 percent of more than 300 job applications got any type of response from employers, and oftentimes, they only responded with a notice that the positions had been filled.

All of this isn’t to say that career centers don’t help students.  Results from NACE’s 2022 Student Survey show that graduating seniors who used at least one service offered by their career center—any service—received an average of 1.24 job offers. In comparison, graduating seniors who did not use any of the career center’s services averaged 1.0 job offers.  Students who take initiative are more likely to see results.  The issue with career centers is their isolation and lack of integration with higher education’s pathways to a degree.  

But it’s a bit unfair to point the finger squarely at career centers.  Ultimately this is a case of leadership in higher education deciding whether it wants to make career development a priority and then aligning their institution’s incentives accordingly.  

In my next article, I ask the all-important question - is college worth it? 

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