As our economic recovery continues its slow trajectory, education is being touted as a useful tool to a better job or a different career path entirely. According to the most recent edition of Learning House’s Online College Students report, three-quarters of students chose to pursue an online degree to either enter a new career, earn a promotion or keep their current job. Because of that, I believe it is incumbent upon institutions that offer online programs to also offer career services to these students. Their goal is not just an education — it is an education with a purpose, and it is up to colleges and universities to help these students meet that purpose.
Career services have long been a staple of college campuses, helping undergraduates find jobs after graduation and offering advice on entering the working world. But for online students, the traditional career services will not suffice. Most online students already have work experience, and need a more specific, targeted, and sophisticated service to help them get the job they want after graduation. Here are four considerations for a career services office directed toward online students.
Help Students Develop a Plan
For traditional college students, career services offices are focused on helping graduates find entry-level jobs. Because many don’t have a lot of work experience, career services offices are geared toward helping them find jobs in a number of industries.
Online students are different. Many of them have extensive work experience, and in fact, may still be working while attending their program. Because of that, they are not interested in roles that are entry-level. Instead, they have specific industries or types of responsibilities they are interested in. But even with that experience and knowledge, students need help developing a plan to achieve their goals. This may include help understanding what specific roles and job titles are available in the industries students desire, helping them understand what classes will give them the skills they need, or connecting students with mentors in the field for informational interviews.
By encouraging students to know their options and develop a roadmap to success, career offices will help students maximize the potential of their degree and help ensure they are focused on their ultimate career objectives.
Be Available, All the Time
One of the reasons students choose to study online is the flexibility and convenience offered by studying when and where they want. That same flexibility needs to translate to career services. Online students are, typically, busy students. They are juggling work, school, and family obligations. If it is difficult to access career services, they simply won’t take advantage of it.
This does not mean that career counselors need to be available around the clock. But it does mean that institutions need to consider what resources are available, and when. Having engaging content that can be accessed at any time will go a long way toward making students feel engaged. Offering a number of channels by which career counselors can be reached also is critical to building relationships — busy students may prefer email, IM or an old-fashioned phone call. The successful career services office will understand and cater to these preferences.
Offer Engaging, Interactive Tools
Career services goes beyond meeting with a career counselor. Instead, career services for online students should think of themselves as similar to an executive recruiting firm. Developing engaging, interactive tools will help busy students get the answers they need without requiring an overinvestment in human capital on the part of the institutions. These tools might include:
- Sample resumes
- Sample cover letters
- Strengths assessments
- Career maps
- Video interviews with industry leaders
But of course, the personal touch also is critical. A career services office that offers only online content can feel disconnected and lack the customized, personal touch online students want. And despite their experience, many online students still need coaching in soft skills. Having coaches available via Skype, email, IM or the phone to help with resume reviews, mock interviews or even just career cheerleading can help give the boost students need to conquer the job market.
In addition, many online students have a bigger network than they know. Giving them strategies on how to access that network or make new connections will help them find the higher-level jobs they are looking for.
Events may be a part of the strategy for career services offices, but they are not as important as in traditional career services. Job fairs, which are ideal for young undergraduates looking for their first job, are less impactful for older, more seasoned workers. Should events happen, they likely need to be virtual and to provide a clear and specific ROI for students.
Integrate with Student Success
Part of building a plan, as I discuss above, is making career services an important part of the educational experience. When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t visit my career services office until the last semester of my senior year, when reality hit that I needed a job, and soon. This is pretty typical of 20-year-olds, but it’s not a terribly effective way to access these valuable services.
One strategy that we’ve found effective is having student success coaches include career coaching in their regular check-ins. The student success coaches reach out to students every week or so to see how things are going and help ensure students get the support they need. At regular intervals, they also ask about career goals, point students toward helpful content, or suggest some assessments they might take. By keeping career services at the forefront of students’ minds, they help ensure that there is no last-minute scramble near graduation, and help students develop and execute a plan for career success. And because students already have a relationship with the student success coaches, the level of trust required to have important conversations already exists, and advice can be taken more gracefully and students are more comfortable asking questions. It’s all part of the holistic approach I encourage colleges and universities to take toward educating the whole student.
All of these strategies should help institutions develop an effective career services office for online students, but you may be wondering if it’s really important. After all, it will require investment and buy-in from key stakeholders — something that is not necessarily a given in academia. But with the increasing calls for tracking, data and proof of ROI on the part of students and legislatures, a career services center is the perfect way to demonstrate value to prospective students. By helping these students find jobs in the field they want quickly, institutions can attract new students and build a robust alumni network that will bear fruit in the years to come. What considerations do you think are essential to a career services office for online students?