12/04/2014 09:37 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

First-Year Students Represent Growing Opportunity for Career Services

This essay was co-authored with Jennifer Berdan Lozano.

The first year of college represents an important time of exploration and transition for students. Most campuses focus efforts aimed at retaining students, as national data show that roughly one in four students do not return to campus for the fall of their sophomore year. These efforts include curricular and co-curricular programming aimed at connecting students with their peers, faculty, and staff members across campus.

To be clear, thinking about and addressing retention and persistence issues on campus is critical; however, findings from the 2014 administration of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program's (CIRP) Your First College Year (YFCY) survey suggest that campuses have a growing opportunity with their first-year students: connecting them with career services.

About one-third (32 percent) of students changed their career plans during the first year of college. Perhaps not coincidentally, 34 percent of first-year students also changed their majors. It is clear that many students are using their first year of college to explore their options.

In fact, most first-year students in the sample recognized the importance of beginning to think about their post-college futures: 59 percent strongly agreed that it is important for them to begin considering post-college pathways. Students are arriving on campus much more career-focused. In 2013, 86.3 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen indicated that being able to get a better job was a "very important" factor in their decision to pursue a college degree -- nearly 20 points higher than the 67.8 percent of entering freshman who said the same in 1976.

Given that students are arriving on campus more career-oriented and indeed are exploring educational and career possibilities in their first year, career services offices on campus can help facilitate these conversations for students. Findings from the 2014 survey indicate that just 25 percent of the sample agreed that they had a clear idea as to how to best achieve their career goals.

Few students, however, seem to be taking advantage of resources available in career services offices on campus. Just 35 percent of first-year students reported "occasionally" using resources offered in their career services offices with another 6 percent indicating that they did so "frequently." The trend in usage of career services among first-year students has been increasing. In 2011, 27.9 percent of students "occasionally" used career services with 3.9 percent having done so "frequently."

Recent reports suggest that this positive trend may be attributable to efforts by these offices to reach out to first-year students. Career services professionals have long known that their resources serve more than just seniors, and a number of campuses have begun leveraging these services to connect with "rookie" students. Career centers seem to be gaining a higher profile on campuses, as institutions recognize the value in connecting students, regardless of class, with opportunities aimed at developing skill sets and fostering network connections.

As students increasingly decide to pursue a college degree with the goal of making more money or finding a better job, colleges and universities have an opportunity to connect them with the campus personnel and resources that are best situated and skilled to facilitate those conversations. Importantly, these career-focused efforts need to be an integral part of a broader strategy aimed at developing the intellectual, interpersonal, and psychosocial skills that will be instrumental in students' success after college.