Edifice Rex—Why a New Career Services Office Can Only Do so Much

You may have read this New York Times piece, “How to Get a Job with a Philosophy Degree,” the other week. To summarize it, Wake Forest University has spent $10 million on a new Career Services building that “looks like Google” and hired nearly thirty additional Career Services staff to help students prepare themselves for and find employment—and to help justify the expense of attending college to their parents.

The narrative is similar to many that are unfolding across the country. The economy has changed and is changing. The cost of education is rising and schools must justify their model. And so on.

Usually, when a school decides it isn’t as dedicated to something as it should be, the solution is obvious. Not enough emphasis on the performing arts? Build a new performing arts building and hire faculty. They throw money at the problem.

And that’s what Wake Forest is doing in the article above. Their method has some merit. More staff can help more students with more things: scholarships, resume writing, grant applications, navigating difficult alumni databases, and so on. But there are too many possible career paths for even a few dozen staff to advise students on all of them.

We’ve always maintained that alumni affairs is career services. Schools need to recognize the immense amount of expertise and goodwill that exists in their population of alumni. Thousands of alumni can talk about jobs and life choices that a few dozen career services staff can’t—and they can offer more than just advice. For a student, a connection with an alumnus or alumna is meaningful on its own. But more concretely, alumni can offer mentorship, connections to jobs and internships, and places to stay. They can offer the support of a community. 

When a school spends a lot of money, we view that money as a proxy for devotion to solving a problem. The more a school spends, the more we think it cares. But not all problems can be solved with money. As Thoreau wrote in Walden:

“Those things for which the most money is demanded are never the things which the student most wants. Tuition, for instance, is an important item in the term bill, while for the far more valuable education which he gets by associating with the most cultivated of his contemporaries no charge is made.”

Money is an easy metric by which to judge success, but how can we measure community? Maybe community isn’t something we can measure; maybe it’s something we can only do.