Trends and Best Practices in Career Pathways at U.S. Colleges and Universities

Unemployed Young University Woman Looking For Work Or Job After Graduation At The Post Board

As colleges and universities seek to become more relevant to all their constituencies and engage them in lifelong relationships, the traditional “career center” is undergoing a major redesign. Key drivers of this organizational shift are the evolving needs and expectations of the “student consumer,” the dynamic realities of the job market and the demand by business for “skills-ready” employees. Several institutions have differentiated themselves by adapting their strategies and positioning themselves for leadership in this competitive space. Like most everything else in higher education today, the solutions are being developed one institution at a time. This report is a snapshot of the general trends coupled with specific examples of different approaches.

The Context for Change

In its 2022 “Jobs Landscape” report in 2019, the World Economic Forum (WEF), an international non-profit foundation for public-private cooperation, offered a provocative assessment of the future linked to four significant trends:

  1. Increasing need for lifelong learning in a non-linear world
  2. Evolving needs and expectations of the “student consumer”
    • “Younger generations entering higher education have a completely different point of departure than previous As digital natives, they have always had technology integrated into most aspects of their lives.”
    • “One-size-fits-all education will soon be a thing of the past and individual learning paths will arguably be less defined by traditional educational structures.”
  3. Emerging technologies and business models
    • “Fast-growing innovators in educational technologies and education industry outsiders are already challenging the status quo by structurally undermining the long-established business models of higher These new actors use technology and data to introduce new, alternative approaches that better deliver on the evolving expectations of learners…inexpensive, personalized, AI-driven…”
  4. Toward a “skills over degrees” model – “While the degree still rules, by and large, we are slowly moving towards a reality with more focus on acquiring skills not degrees…Research shows that education level is only weakly correlated with job performance and, in fact, more and more companies [Google, Apple, Ernst & Young UK, IBM] are actively shifting focus away from degrees to new ways of measuring employability as a consequence of the changing nature of work.”1

As a leading indicator of the accelerating developments, “In this new world of work, the impact of technology means new skills and new roles are emerging as fast as other roles change,” said Daphne Luchtenberg of McKinsey & Company in a podcast discussion with WEF and other global executives who are engaging their people by putting technology in the hands of the workforce.2

The World Economic Forum is not alone in this assessment. Taking a longer view is the recent analysis by Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt in The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present and Uncertain Future (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021). Underscoring the critical impact of the digital revolution and looking at higher education in the U.S. backwards, forwards and sideways (e.g., industries such as the newspaper business that have radically changed as a result), the authors suggest that colleges and universities that survive will choose between adaptation or disruption, both of which can be realistic business models depending on the circumstances of the institution.

The evolution of university “life pathways,” involving students and alumni over the course of the “60-year curriculum” and with career preparation as a core element is one of these adaptive models.

“Today, the colonial age and the industrial age exist only in history books, and even the office age may be fast receding into memory,” writes Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun in his provocative 2017 book Robot-Proof about remodeling U.S. higher ed for the future. As a pioneer in experiential learning with its co-op model of higher education, Northeastern’s mission has always been to prepare students for fulfilling and successful roles in the professional world. “We live in the digital age,” Aoun adds. “…A robot-proof model of higher education is not concerned solely with topping up students’ minds with high-octane facts. Rather, it refits their mental engines…to invent, discover or otherwise produce something society deems valuable.”3

Such transformation inevitably involves strong and mutually beneficial affiliations and partnerships between education and employers.

“We have a responsibility to position graduates to thrive in their fifth and sixth jobs and also to secure that crucial first job,” said William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe in October 2021 in announcing plans to create funded internship opportunities for all students by increasing outreach to alumni, parents and friends, and current and future employers.

History documents “unambiguously,” according to The Great Upheaval, that “since the earliest universities, students have come to college to prepare for jobs…The dichotomy between education for personal enrichment and education for participation in society, including the labor market, has always been a false one.”

The authors suggest that “restoring the connection between education and work requires colleges and universities to build on the research of the skunkworks,” involving such features as continually updating and modernizing programs and twenty-first- century skills, strong apprenticeship and internship programs and a career center “on steroids” from day one for students through postgraduation.4

How Platform Thinking Creates a Model for University Relationship Management

Platform business models that have matured in the early 21st century create value by facilitating exchanges between two or more interdependent groups, usually consumers and producers. They harness and create large, scalable networks of users and resources that can be accessed on demand. They create communities and markets with network effects that allow users to interact and transact.5

Platform models focus on the “customer experience.” Companies like Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google have achieved enormous scale and built customer value in a relatively short period of time using digital technology, including Artificial Intelligence (AI), to manage relationships. Unlike traditional linear businesses, they do not own their inventory and sell or license their products downstream along the typical linear supply chain (e.g., General Motors, HBO, Macy’s and Standard Oil).

Platform businesses do not own the means of production, rather they create the means of connection – anytime, anywhere. Propelled by technology, platform businesses can scale in ways that traditional businesses cannot. They also foster personalization, which today’s digital natives expect. And they are growing rapidly. Since the early 2000s, platform businesses have rapidly overtaken other business models and today are among the top companies by market cap.6

Like businesses, universities manage multiple stakeholders. Increasingly, these stakeholders interact outside traditional academic or administrative silos. Chief among them are students, whose pathways through the institution are by no means linear.

Thanks to their experiences as digital consumers in everyday society, students and alumni now expect seamless interactions with the institution, not a series of disconnected experiences (which are still more common). For the university of the future, designing the “customer experience” to engage “the whole customer” at multiple points through his or her journey is both a way to retain and grow that relationship across their life pathways and a means of establishing efficiencies and more agile structures that cut across business lines (such as academic departments or schools) and market segments (such as students, alumni and industry partners).

Nowhere is this opportunity more evident than in the traditional realms of career services and alumni relations. Recognizing this, one of the recent trends is coupling career programs and advancement, through direct reporting lines or formalized internal collaborations.

 How Colleges and Universities Are Re-Imagining Career Services

The Association of American Colleges and Universities’ 2021 survey of employers found that while employers value the college degree and believe that a liberal education provides knowledge and skills that are important for career success, they also see room for improvement in how colleges and universities prepare students for work.7 Whether preparation for a specific profession or job, active and applied learning experiences with employers or development of a broad skill base that can be applied across a range of contexts, colleges have been doing this all along. Today the issues are more acute, however, as the vast majority of students cite jobs and career outcomes as the number reason for going to college.8

“College career services units have traditionally focused on empowering students to attain their first career after graduation. However, careers are usually made up of a series of different jobs and roles: The first job search is rarely the last,” write Suzanne Helbig and Gary Matkin, authors of a report for the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Matkin is dean of continuing education and vice provost of career pathways at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and is the individual identified with the concept of the “60-year curriculum,” which begins with a student’s first year in college and spans their career. As part of the trend to reposition career services for greater effectiveness, UCI created a separate division for Career Pathways in 2017. “It is no wonder that alumni and continuing education students are looking to their colleges for leading-edge professional development and career advancement support to span their years in the workforce,” Helbig and Matkin continue. “Colleges that respond to these needs provide valuable reasons for alumni and community members to engage with and value their campus.” Done well, career services that cover the entire 60-year curriculum, they contend, increase chances of alumni giving, encourage alumni to hire fellow alumni and create a broad talent pool ranging from student interns to executive-level professionals.

Moreover, heightened calls to demonstrate economic impact in a competent workforce “mean that the career services function needs to be better positioned to play a key role in connecting the employer community to the campus…and [with] greater capacity to quantify and present the outcomes of these efforts.”


1 World Economic Forum (2019, December 20), “The 4 biggest challenges to our higher education model and what to do about them,” higher-education-challenges/

2 McKinsey & Company (2022, January), “The Fourth Industrial Revolution will be people powered,” will-be-people-powered

3 Joseph E. Aoun (president of Northeastern University), Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, The MIT Press, 2017.

4 Arthur Levine & Scott Van Pelt, The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present and Uncertain Future, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021.

5 Alex Moazed, “Platform Business Model – Definition | What is it? | Explanation,”

6 Nicholas L. Johnson, “Platform v. Linear: Business Models 101,”, Insights blog.

7 “What Employers Want,” Inside Higher Ed, April 6, 2021.

8 Suzanne Helbig & Gary W. Matkin, “College Career Services on the Move: Why – and What Does it Mean?”, National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Journal, August 2021.