Amazon Job Fair

Job seekers lined up in September to speak to recruiters at an Amazon job fair in Dallas.

While nearly 80% of college students report that increasing their prospects for employment after graduation is their No. 1 reason for enrolling in higher education, research finds that fewer than 20% reach out to career services on their campuses for advice on finding a job. Gallup concluded in the same study that students who do seek career services support are far more confident that their field of study will lead to a good job than their peers who do not. Why the disconnect?

Obviously, not all students are alike, nor are college campuses. But a universal truth would suggest that university leaders take a new approach: Integrate career services into students’ trusted networks. Carol D’Amico, executive vice president at Strada Education Network, said recently in The Atlantic that career services should not be a standalone entity on campus but an “internal consultant to faculty and staff.” Such a closer proximity to students’ daily lives could increase the likelihood that they’ll seek advice, the research suggests. And such advice could increase their career prospects. Especially in a time when increasing tuition forces many students to take on debt, assisting our students in securing gainful employment after graduation ought to be a high priority for leaders in higher education. And in a time when many employers struggle to fill good jobs, seeking ways to close this gap ought to be a priority for business leaders as well.

We are fortunate in Virginia to have one of the best higher education systems in the nation. In fact, the financial advising network SmartAsset recently named Virginia as the “top state for higher education.” So Virginia schools ought to take the lead in finding ways to get students to career services. And as president of the university named Virginia’s “Best College for Getting a Job” based on U.S. Department of Education data, I believe James Madison University ought to lead by example.

In partnership with Growth4VA, the broad-based bipartisan coalition of Virginia’s business, education and political leaders, and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, JMU is introducing a new initiative that puts critical career services into a place where we know students will find them early in their college careers.

Analytics show conclusively that the first information students and their families seek when embarking on their college search is about academic majors. Whether a university offers a major in their field of interest is the No. 1 determining factor in deciding whether to apply to a particular institution. Our web analytics bear this out: Users arrive from search engines most often at JMU webpages that provide overviews of the academic majors in which they’re interested. So why not expose them to real live career opportunities right there before they’ve even arrived on campus as students?

Handshake, the top early talent community with more than 400,000 employer partners and 900 university partners, provides an automated system enabling students to find internship and job opportunities, and is widely available to students across the nation — if they sign up and log in to the system. But at JMU, we feed these career opportunities live to public webpages corresponding to academic majors. According to Christine Yip Cruzvergara, vice president for Higher Education & Student Success at Handshake (and proud JMU alumna), “More universities need to take an institutional-level approach to career education. It’s inspiring to see senior leadership and academic colleagues champion an initiative that further drives student career success. As a product of the VA public education system, it’s wonderful to see this level of commitment.”

One of the important byproducts of this approach is that students will see that a particular academic major can lead to many different career paths. Our colleagues at Growth4VA are excited about JMU’s initiative in hopes that other Virginia colleges and universities will follow our lead and offer their students the same access to opportunity that Virginia’s “Best College for Getting a Job” does. Brian Riley, head of hiring for Amazon HQ2 (another proud JMU alumnus) told me recently that Amazon selected Virginia as the site for HQ2 because of our higher education system’s leadership in turning out top talent. Taking steps such as JMU’s recent initiative will assure that Virginia continues to lead the way.

Jonathan R. Alger is president of James Madison University. Contact him at: president@jmu.edu

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