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CLAREMONT, Calif. — Tiny Scripps College is still on winter break, and the Spanish colonial revival-style campus 30 miles east of Los Angeles seems deserted but for one small group of students busy practicing their handshakes.
The visiting alumna who is testing them pronounces most to have good, solid grips, just right for greeting the job interviewers they’re here learning to impress.
These 15 students, at a school whose enrollment is about 950, are back at Scripps early not to focus on how to do a job, but on how to get one.
The session at the private liberal arts women’s college is one of a handful of efforts using seemingly endless winter breaks to provide career advising many students never seek out during the rest of the year.
“It’s just really hard to wrangle them, with their schedules” when classes are in session, said Vicki Klopsch, who runs the program.
Using winter break for this is among the ways some colleges, especially those that focus on the liberal arts, are responding to demands that they provide more practical career advising. It’s also an attempt to improve graduates’ placement rates and salaries, on which the schools are increasingly judged.
“Whenever I talk to prospective students and their parents there are two issues I have to address: college costs and affordability, and the employability of liberal arts graduates,” said Bill Tsutsui, president of Hendrix College in Arkansas, which just held its second annual winter career program for sophomores.
“The perception is so strong that just about the only thing liberal-arts graduates can do is become baristas,” Tsutsui said. Yet “every year in April I would meet seniors who had that deer-in-the-headlights look about, ‘What am I going to do when I graduate?’ And when I asked them, ‘Did you go to the career center,’ they’d say no.”
There’s another powerful influence that makes students think about careers during the weeks between the fall and spring semesters: their parents.
“When students are home is when they get the inquiries over and over and again: ‘What are you thinking about? What are you going to do next summer?’” said Beth Throne, associate vice president for student and post-graduate development at Franklin & Marshall College, which anticipates this with a career boot camp for seniors at the end of winter break.
“The holidays are super stressful for these students, especially for seniors,” said Klopsch.
One who came back early to Scripps, Nicole Greenberg, said that, when she’s home between semesters, “There’s definitely a lot of asking what I’m going to do when I graduate.” Another, Emilie Hu, said she otherwise would have spent her winter break home in Pasadena with her dog and, since her twin brother already went back to college, “alone with my parents.” Instead she was spending a week learning job-seeking tips.
Wintertime vacations started growing in the 1970s, when closing campuses for from three to six weeks helped colleges and universities in colder climates save on heating costs. The practice spread to warmer institutions, too, and most have left things that way. (Exactly why the breaks are still so long “is a great question, which I don’t think any of us know the answer to,” Tsutsui said.)
Career advising during those long intercessions lets colleges capitalize on a period when they’re otherwise like ghost towns, with what Tsutsui called “a lot of very underemployed staff members” — and when students aren’t consumed with academics or distracted by their extracurricular activities and social lives.
Hendrix has even invented a name for it: Career Term.
“It makes great sense because it’s such a down time,” said Rich Feller, who studies trends like this as a professor of counseling and career development at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Winter break, said Feller, “is dead space. It’s inefficient use of the campus and of students’ opportunity to work on their career potential.
The new career programs, most new this year or within the last few years and so far available at only a few schools, are optional and generally offered without additional charge; at Miami University of Ohio, which this winter is holding its first Career Summit, students have to pay to come back early to the dorms.
Some are for underclassmen who are just starting to think about careers; others, for seniors nearing graduation.
Formats vary by campus, but the sessions last from a few days at most schools to a week at Scripps, and generally cover the basics of searching for a job: writing resumes, practicing interviews, networking, dressing professionally, business etiquette, finding internships, personal branding. At Miami of Ohio, students were invited to attend in business attire and the program was modeled after a professional conference with a keynote speaker and breakout sessions, all covering career preparation.
Because these things are taught in groups, such efforts maximize the reach of career offices; the median number of professional career services employees at a college or university is three, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, or NACE.
“The question is why haven’t we tapped into this before. For the right student, who is willing to come back early, it seems like a good use of that otherwise down time,” said Jen Franchak, assistant vice president for the Center for Career Exploration & Success at Miami of Ohio.
On the other hand, said Klopsch, “A lot of colleges struggle with how are they going to pay for it, or there are staff who take vacations.”
Some institutions use the winter break for job-shadowing and alumni networking events. Lafayette College, whose winter break lasts for almost the entire month of January, sends teams of students to Boston, New York and Chicago and to the area around its Easton, Pennsylvania campus to visit businesses and alumni in their eventual fields, for networking and professional development.
“There’s lots of conversation among my peers about the winter break, said Mike Summers, Lafayette’s assistant vice president for career services. That’s because, during the rest of the year, “It’s difficult to run programming of any length against academic obligations, and most professors won’t let [students] miss class. You’re constantly competing for those students’ time.”
Campus career officials are also straining to help students find good jobs, something 85 percent of freshmen told a national survey run by an institute at UCLA is why they went to college in the first place.
But fewer than half of employers say graduates have the professionalism and work ethic they need, NACE found in a separate survey.
University alumni seem to hold their colleges accountable for this. Only 17 percent told a Gallup poll that their career services office had been very helpful to them. Then again, 40 percent never set foot in the career center, Gallup found. (NACE, which represents career officers, says 86 percent of students who had begun their job searches interacted with the career center in person or online.)
“Some institutions wait for someone to come through the door for an advising appointment” instead of reaching out with programs like the winter break events, said Throne. “It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work.”
Among her friends, said Scripps sophomore Margot Mafra Spencer, “maybe one out of 10” has gone to the career office, even though “they’re all overwhelmed and thinking, ‘What am I going to do with my life.’”
That’s because “there’s maybe a little bit of hesitation, that sense of, ‘Hey it’s in the future,’” said senior Emma Loftus, who is from Seattle.
She doesn’t see it that way, Loftus said.
“I definitely do consider college to be an investment,” she said. “I’m not going to move home after this and do nothing.”
If the stakes are high for students and their families, who have invested heavily in higher educations, doing better also is essential to the universities and colleges.
Alumni who considered their career offices helpful were more than three times as likely than those who didn’t to recommend their colleges to others and nearly three times more likely to donate money, Gallup found.
Back at Scripps, the students said their winter break was teaching them that looking for a job was not as intimidating as they’d thought.
It’s their self-confidence that needs the most work, Klopsch said. “Hands down. They don’t know their own confidence. They don’t believe in their own confidence.”
Hu, for instance, said she has “never been someone who was fearless or the first to speak.” Added Loftus: “As a senior entering the workforce, I do have anxiety about feeling whether I’m ready.”
So the students practiced interviewing, learned how to create convincing profiles on LinkedIn, found the typical salaries and workplace demands for careers they’re considering and created words they said described them.
“An effective communicator,” one pronounced, as the rest applauded from their seats in a career office ringed by shelves of books about such things as writing effective cover letters and mastering the job interview. “Sparkle,” said another, using her hands for emphasis.
“People make it seem much more intimidating than it actually is,” said Spencer, hours into the third day of the program. “This breaks it down into manageable pieces. All I really needed was the tools.”
Greenberg, a senior just a few months from graduation, found it equally helpful, she said.
“I wish I had done this as a freshman.”
This story about career advising was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.