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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

High School Students: Beware of College Career Centers

An open letter to high school principals and counselors
By Rick Hess — December 14, 2023 5 min read
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When it comes to advising high schoolers and families thinking about the future, we talk a lot about majors, choosing an institution, the cost of college, and the value of a degree. That’s all well and good, but it all assumes that attending college will help students find a good job. Unfortunately, the part of college specifically charged with helping students identify careers isn’t doing the job. At least that’s what Mike Goldstein and Geordie Brackin, co-founders of 1Up Career Coaching, argued earlier this year in “Peeling The ‘College Career Services Office’ Onion: Why They Are Terrible And What To Do About It.” We had a little back-and-forth about their detailed, provocative analysis, and I thought it worth sharing their thoughts on what this means for college-bound high schoolers. Here’s what they had to say.

—Rick

Dear Friends,

If you haven’t read Paul Tough’s New York Times article about the payoff to college, do so now. New research finds African American or Hispanic college students who major in the arts, humanities, or social sciences often do not end up better off financially than they were when they entered college.

And then read a new report from 1Up, our nonprofit that serves recent college graduates struggling in the job market. It’s called Peeling The “College Career Services Office” Onion: Why They Are Terrible And What To Do About It.

For our report, we interviewed career-services counselors and recent college graduates. The recent grads were frustrated—after a big May celebration with family, often as the first in their family to earn a degree, by October, they were dejected, unable to find jobs that offered meaning or decent pay. The career counselors were unhappy, too: They describe being muzzled, unable to speak to students the way they would their own nieces and nephews, unable to do “straight talk.” Instead, their charge was to “help as best they could,” with vague feedback and false reassurance.

While students from wealthier families had parents with enough “social capital” to explain to their children how the hiring game is really played, students from poorer families got no such advice and ended up surprised and disappointed with the real-life job search.

The failures of college career offices have been chronicled by both expert researchers (see this report from the Strada-funded University Innovation Alliance) and commentators (see this analysis, “Abolish Career Services,” from Achieve Partners managing director and Forbes columnist Ryan Craig).

Given such realities, you may wonder: As a principal or high school counselor, what can I do now to help my college-bound high school seniors, particularly those unlikely to get STEM or business degrees and those who had mediocre academic performance in high school?

Before they merrily head off to college, here is something you could say in an assembly:

Seniors, when you arrive at college, you will see a building called the Dorm. It will have a reasonably comfortable bed for you; the building does what it says.

You will see a building called the Dining Hall, which in fact has food (probably reasonably tasty, though opinions vary).

You will see a building called the Library, which has books and librarians to help you find books—yes, “books,” from days of yore.

You’ll visit your “Adviser’s” office, and across from a desk will be a professor who can explain different majors and course requirements.

You will see the Infirmary, and it in fact has competent doctors and nurses.

You also see this building called “Career Center.” You might assume that it will be functional, just like all the other buildings. It will help you find a “career”—or, at least, a job upon graduation.

In that, you are profoundly mistaken. This is the only building on campus that doesn’t come close to doing what it says on the front door.

Here’s what really happens.

If you major in science or engineering, lots of companies will want to hire you.

If you are an absolute top student in any major, outperforming all your college classmates, lots of companies will want to hire you.

Often the same is true if you’re in a “vocational major” in a local shortage area (teaching, nursing, etc.). Employers in those fields may be aggressively recruiting college seniors.

Otherwise, you will probably find it hard and lonely to get your first job. When you do find one, there’s a good chance it pays just $36,000 per year or so. Your first job sure as heck is not coming from the Career Center.

The Career Office is not equipped “to get you a job.” It’s full of generally very nice people who are simply not set up to get you a job. They offer mild edits on your resume, which helps your job search perhaps by 3 percent. They give you advice like “network,” but it’s not obvious how to actually do this. They refer you to their “Handshake” online platform, which you will likely find frustrating. They may organize some career fairs, where you’ll wander from table to table, confused about what to say or ask.

If you want a good job upon graduation, and you don’t come from a family full of connections, you’ll need to get it done yourself. To do this, you’ll need to remember two things. First, as a college senior, your job search should be your largest time commitment—at least 10 hours a week until you land something—which is more important than any class you take. And second, even as a first-year student, you should devote at least four hours per week, all year, to fighting your way to land a paid summer internship—and then do it again as a sophomore and junior. At least with internships, you struggle productively with interviews and cover letters along the way, you learn what you might want to do professionally (so even “bad” internships are good learning), and you build a track record and connections to help you land that first full-time job upon graduation. Adopt the mindset that you’ve got to fight to get that first good job, even (and especially) when your classmates seem to be unworried about it.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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