I tell my kids lots of stories about college, most far-fetched. Oddly, while they know I play tenor saxophone – although not nearly as frequently as they play their very loud instruments – the stories they really can’t believe involve marching band:
You were in the marching band?
Yes, but you’ve got to understand it wasn’t a typical marching band…
The Yale Precision Marching Band derided traditional bands as Q-tips because of the hats. Our band was a scramble band, not so much about precise formations (i.e., ironic use of “precision”). So the YPMB performed halftime shows playing the Godfather theme and pretending to dig up Jimmy Hoffa on the 30-yard line, an infamous “Nuns for Elvis” routine at Boston College, and one about George W. Bush with a line of musicians wearing white shirts playing Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine.” YPMB musicians are surrounded by a large contingent of band members carrying various and sundry (and sometimes unmentionable) props. Routines were routinely derided as vulgar and tasteless. And that was on a good day.
My freshman year, the drum major was Peter Arvantely. Peter wore a Darth Vader mask and carried a light saber as we marched into the Yale Bowl. He exuded charisma like I’d never experienced; we would have followed him to the gates of hell or Harvard Stadium. In the days leading up to Saturday, he’d distribute instructions on formations we were supposed to make. I kept one that showed the band forming two beer mugs while playing “Roll Out The Barrel.” In the middle of his depiction of the formations, he wrote the following in penmanship suited to his frenzied personality:
You don’t have to read this part. I figger that since it’s parents’ weekend, I might tell you a little about my dad. When I was little, he used to come home and sis and I would want to play. He’d say, “wait til I change,” which means, “wait til I take off my work clothes.” So ten minutes later, he would come out in his recreation clothes. However, “change” was also the word we used to describe his transformation into a werewolf. So once a month or so, he would emerge from his room as a wolfman and threaten to eat us, saying “Hi kiddies, I CHANGED!”
Our band director (adult supervision) was quoted as saying the YPMB was “not really a musical organization” but rather an “activity.” That activity was, of course, theater – something we’re seeing frequently these days.
When we visit an office building in many big cities, we need to show ID. At the airport, we’re asked to remove belts and shoes before passing through ineffective body scans; children and the elderly are patted down; toothpaste, shampoo, and water bottles are confiscated, adding to plastic waste. These are examples of what’s been called security theater: acts that are supposed to but don’t actually make us safer.
Once we reach the plane, we enter public health theater. Flight attendants push hand sanitizer wipes as we board. And despite the fact that after 2 and ½ years, there’s no evidence of Covid transmission via surfaces (fomites), airlines like United think it’s important to make in-flight announcements like: “we constantly apply antimicrobial coating to the aircraft to keep you safe.”
While college students have some exposure to security theater and public health theater, the biggest show is over at career services. Up until the time I was in marching band, no one worried too much about career services. Colleges did a reasonable job preparing students for jobs. For the attractive careers of the future (think of Mad Men in the ‘60s or L.A. Law in the ‘80s), a bachelor’s degree signaled sufficient cognitive skills, problem solving skills, communication skills, an ability to learn, persistence, and the go-along-get-along-ness required in the workplace. Which explains why career services was located in a dark corner of campus and closed evenings and weekends.
But about 20 years ago, as digital transformation took hold of entry-level jobs and hiring processes, most college students began needing help. Career services digitized as well. Folders and binders were replaced with career services management (CSM) systems like Symplicity that handled core functions like job postings, event management, and scheduling counseling appointments and on campus interviews. Symplicity reached 70% market share despite being widely disliked and having its CEO jailed for corporate espionage.
Nine years ago, along came Handshake. Founder Garrett Lord saw that career services management was a winner-take-all market: more colleges on the platform = more value for employers = more value for colleges. So Garrett and his team did four really smart things: (1) built a better CSM SaaS platform; (2) prioritized an employer network; (3) priced Handshake under $10K p.a.; and (4) raised lots of money from Kleiner Perkins and others so it could afford to do 1, 2, and 3.
Quickly, career services offices around were overwhelmed with an irresistible proposition: switch to Handshake to access a massive network of hiring employers (including 80% of the Fortune 500), save money, and you won’t hate the platform nearly as much. Handshake added other bells and whistles like student reviews of employers, but the pieces were in place for dominance. Handshake now boasts 1,400 college and university clients, 10M+ active student users (i.e., over half of all enrolled students, and probably close to 70% of undergraduates), and more than 750,000 employers. The platform allows students to apply for jobs “in as few as two clicks.” Earlier this year, Handshake raised another $200M at a $3.5B valuation, making it one of edtech’s most valuable companies.
So here’s the show. Due to skill, experience, and credential inflation, it’s become harder than ever for graduates to get good jobs. But because students now have access to Handshake and its network, career services has an illusion of progress: a decade ago we had 200 companies recruiting our students, but look, now there’s 750,000! That’s career services theater (a tragedy, not a comedy).
Nationalizing the market for entry-level hiring made a lot of sense for Lord and his co-founders – computer science majors at Michigan Technological University (located in the Upper Peninsula). And it almost certainly helps graduates of high-value programs (computer science, engineering) all across the country. But what does Handshake do for psychology or political science students? The answer can be found on the same place all of Handshake’s jobs are also found i.e., the Internet:
Any large platform is going to have disappointed users and Handshake does a great job on core CSM functions. But in a recent Inside Higher Education and Kaplan survey of over 2,000 students, only 14% were happy with career services. Career services theater has also helped rationalize the end of on-campus recruiting (career fairs becoming virtual during Covid and staying that way – but it’s OK because 750,000 companies!). The predictable result: expectation resetting e.g., Handshake Instagram posts like Your first job won’t be your dream job. JUST START SOMEWHERE.
The dark side of Handshake’s success has been delaying the change we desperately need: abolishing career services. Naming career services as college’s one-stop-shop for employment absolves every other part of the university – all other staff, faculty, and administrators, comprising 99%+ of the workforce and resources – of responsibility for helping students get good jobs. As Allison Dulin Salisbury noted earlier this month, colleges have focused on “career support as a last-mile service.” But “in order to drive success… it needs to be a primary focus of the first mile.”
What does first-mile career services look like? It puts the onus on departments and faculty. Faculty should be charged with making connections between course performance and career opportunities, advising students, and building and maintaining field-specific employer networks; then they ought to be evaluated on these metrics. Rather than watching career services theater, as one recent George Mason graduate commented, it was “more beneficial to get closer with the professors within your major to get connections, or just straight up ask them if they have any undergrad opportunities in their research/work.”
Faculty who are great at helping students get good jobs may be just as valuable as world-class researchers; they should be celebrated and rewarded. Deans who are great at it might just justify their jobs. And adding employment metrics could also help attract more practitioners to campus.
I recognize network building isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Faculty who can’t hack it can be coaches, mentors, and cheerleaders who’ll increase job search persistence and resilience, giving opportunity the chance to strike. But faculty unwilling to stretch should consider switching to a profession that doesn't involve interacting with students whose primary concern is employment; try teaching elementary school.
Abolishing career services isn’t an original idea. Nearly a decade ago, Andy Chan, gave a TEDx talk titled
Career Services Must Die. But here’s an updated roadmap:
1. Recognize Handshake for what it does well, and what it doesn’t do – pretending Handshake alone is the solution for most students is theatrical, not practical;
2. Abolish career services and reestablish it as a faculty-facing support function. Career services professionals should train faculty, staff, and administrators to build and extend professional networks, provide ongoing support, manage a work-integrated learning program like Riipen – connecting employers directly with faculty and allowing faculty to incorporate real work as capstone projects – and, yes, manage Handshake;
3. Establish employment incentives and performance metrics for all faculty, staff, and administrators; and
4. When students graduate, situate their employment function in alumni services, which will focus on establishing networks of alumni employers likely to be more loyal than the typical company posting on Handshake.
Career services theater is irrational – exactly the kind of thing college should be a bulwark against (with an important exception for marching bands). While security theater and public health theater are a nuisance, career services theater is noxious. It’s time to bring this show to a close.