The race is on at campuses across the country to enhance co-op programs for STEM and business students following the federal government’s commitment of $73M in support of this cause. In and of itself, the influx of cash is not a bad thing at all. Co-op programs are competitive, labour-intensive, and heavily dependent on establishing strong relationships between institutions and employers. The government funding is an incentive to employers, making participation in such programs an easier sell, and will likely translate into more placements for students. But not all students will benefit.
With the possible exception of Waterloo, co-op programs can’t secure enough placements for all students to participate. Combine this shortage with competition from multiple universities in a given geographic region, and the actual number of students securing co-op placements starts to decline rapidly, which creates a desperate need to hire additional co-op and employment services staff. It is a never-ending cycle. Without additional funding to hire more employer-facing staff, career and co-op offices can only shuffle priorities and reduce the amount of staff and hours devoted to student services. It is a dangerous balancing act, with potentially serious consequences.
Universities invest significant time and money to prepare students to succeed in work integrated learning (WIL) programs. In order to participate, students usually complete required courses that prepare them for the process. Universities want students to make a positive impression on employers, and so they teach their prospective candidates how to write resumes and cover letters, perform well in interviews, and communicate effectively on the job. This information would benefit the entire student population, but only a portion of those in co-op eligible programs will be able to take the courses. Space in such classes is limited, not by desire, but by logistics.
In an environment wholly focused on research, innovation and education, it seems shocking that we don’t apply those same principles to the career and employment support of postsecondary students. Expanding the scope and capacity of existing employment-focused courses would better prepare students to find and secure positions for the summer or after graduation. The courses already exist, yet their potential is not realized for either students or their institutions.
Career and employment courses are not a new concept. A review of the literature shows over a century of instruction and evolution in this area, and with good reason. They are a cost-effective method of delivering high-quality service, information and support to large numbers of students, and the need is great. Canada lacks uniformity for career education from K-12, and access to trained guidance counsellors is not a given.
In their annual report of Ontario’s schools, People for Education found that the average ratio of students to guidance counsellors is 380:1, but 10% of schools have a ratio as high as 600:1. With that level of disparity, we can’t expect that teens are making informed decisions on their postsecondary applications.
The situation is no different for graduate students. Confronted with a lack of tenure track positions, graduate students often experience confusion, depression, grief and a loss of identity when leaving academia. To paraphrase Erin Bartram’s now famous quit-lit letter, they don’t know what they will do, or what they are good for.
If institutions adopted the course-based career education model, and moved beyond co-op prep courses, they could vastly improve the student experience for undergraduate and graduate students. They could also improve their institutional data. Career education courses that focus on issues such as decision making, choosing a career path or major, and career planning as related to academic curriculum, have been proven to have positive impacts on student retention, engagement, and graduation rates. Only six universities in Canada have a graduation rate above 80% according to Maclean’s Magazine, but career courses may offer a solution.
Florida State University (FSU), for example, has offered career courses since 1973, and their faculty have studied the impacts on students. According to the research, students that completed the career course had a 12% higher graduation rate than those that didn’t take the course. Other peer-reviewed studies point to an increase in positive outcomes for at-risk students who complete career education courses, and greater connection to campus for culturally diverse and first-generation students who may feel disconnected from their peers. Finally, researchers have shown that courses are no less effective than individual appointments or small group workshops, which means that universities don’t have to sacrifice quality for the sake of quantity.
Career education courses offer universities the unique opportunity to tailor content to promote opportunities within each faculty and program, while addressing the needs of the student population at large. They allow for collaboration and customization between faculty members, wellness counsellors, and career services professionals, and provide students with the opportunity to apply their research and analytical skills to their academic and professional development. If we can agree that career preparation is a student wellness issue, then we can also agree that it is an academic issue.
At a time when institutional budgets are stretched thin, and federal and provincial governments are adding or increasing targets for WIL, universities need to incorporate economical methods of service delivery. It’s simply not feasible to rely solely on the traditional model of one-on-one appointments and optional workshops as the mainstay of career support, especially with shrinking staff numbers. If we want to ensure student success, a point on which all universities agree, we need to teach our students how to move forward during and after their postsecondary education.