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Normalizing data for student success. More than ever, people question the value of higher education. Let's explore why they’re right, why they’re wrong and how data will determine our future. Tune in now.

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Hire a Mountaineer: How West Virginia University Supports Student Career Success

S3  |  E1  | Dave Durham, West Virginia University

Jacob: More people than ever are questioning the value of higher education. We're here to explore why they're right, why they're wrong, and which institutions are rising to the challenge. I'm Steppingblocks' analytics consultant, Dr. Jacob Bonne, and I'm here with the Director of Career Services at West Virginia University, Dave Durham. Welcome, Dave.

Dave: Hi Jacob, thanks for inviting me to be on the podcast today. I would love to have the opportunity to talk about the value in two parts: why higher education has become so expensive, and also, why the question continues to arise around whether or not the value is there for education. First, a little bit about state universities. I have 40 plus years here at WVU. So I've seen some pretty significant changes.

One of the most common questions I'm asked by friends and family that isn't as directly related is "Why has Higher Ed gotten so expensive?" We all know it's been increasing the last 20 years, it's been pretty high. But over the last 40 years is where I've seen an unbelievable change. You know, WVU, West Virginia University, has always had a rich tradition of being very high value...bang for your buck. Our costs are low here, still are today, low tuition rates. But we've seen significant increases here as well. And I know for us a big part of it is that state funding. As a state funded university, we haven't seen the state funding keep up with the cost increases and inflation. So literally, in my professional lifetime, I've seen our percentage of support from the state go from 85% to almost reversed at about 15%. With a budget that's well over a billion dollars, we have the same dollar amount that we had 40 years ago. And so there's really nowhere else for that to come from. So what you're really seeing is public schools start having tuition very similar to private schools. It's crazy how it's gone up over the years.

As for the value of higher education, I just think it's very short sighted by some of the folks that question it. The example I like to use is we have a little over 150 different undergraduate degrees here at WVU. In my professional lifetime here, I've seen successful students in every major, and I've seen unsuccessful students in every major. So as I talk about this there were two emerging themes that continue to surface. And those are preparation and expectations.

If a person goes to college today, and they do their due diligence, and they go to class, and they study, and then get good grades and they graduate. If that's all they did, then honestly, that college education isn't much more valuable than what a high school education was 30 years ago. All you've really done is shown people that you have the ability to learn and you're diligent? You stuck it out for four years.

But honestly, it's preparation that has become critical. So a college education is an investment. You're purchasing something to better yourself. So if I go out and buy a $100,000 car and I park it in my garage. I go out there once a day and listen to the radio, I never fuel the thing up, and I never do anything else I need to do to make it worth that $100,000, whose fault is that? Is that my fault or is that the car manufacturer's fault? In today's on campus recruiting practices, what employers are looking for has really put the duty on the student to do the right things to prepare for their careers. And to have realistic expectations about what they can do with their degree, does that make any sense?

Jacob: Yeah, actually, I love that analogy. And I love that frame of reference. We talk a lot in higher education about the importance of high impact practices, and, and all of the pieces that a student can do during their career, study abroad opportunities, internship opportunities, clubs, organizations, and volunteer work. There's so many different avenues for the student. And we've said that those are really important for student success for a long time. I appreciate what you're saying about contextualizing that in the face of these concerns about the value of higher education, those are not necessarily just add-ons for student success, but really integral pieces for the student to maximize the value of their investment.

Dave: Correct. And at some point in time, the responsibility falls on the student. And, of course, we offer services. Later in the podcast, there's some questions where we talk about data and the value of data today, but but it really does fall on the student. A lot of the degrees that you hear today don't necessarily tell the story. If I'm in nursing, you kind of know what I'm going to do if I work in my field, or accounting or chemical engineering. But some others not so much. So the onus is really on the student and it is their responsibility. They say "I'm I'm majoring in multidisciplinary studies, but let me explain to you what that means and why it makes me such a great candidate for this job."

And if you haven't prepared for that, you're not going to be in a position where you're going to wind up with that job. 20 years ago, it was 'do you want fries with that?' Now, it's, 'do want me to leave room for milk?' Everybody's a barista today. So, the grads that wind up in those jobs are the ones that are most likely having their parents have conversations about, 'why did I spend $100,000 for my son to get an education to, be an assistant manager at Starbucks?' so I get it. I mean, I have two children of my own, I put through college. I shouldn't say I put them through... they went through, they did the work. But fortunately for them, they got it. They understood what what they needed to do and had realistic expectations and, you know, are very successful now.

Jacob: So it's been just over two and a half years, it's actually almost 31 months to the day since I left the office for two weeks at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. So how has the landscape changed in HigherEd and in the world? How would you describe the return to normal at WVU?

Dave: Well that's a loaded question. I have to tell you, it's definitely been a challenge for us. WVU has made a really strong commitment to try to return things to normal on campus. But honestly, it's been a real uphill battle trying to reengage students. I say this a lot in our office, 'why don't I take a step back and try to take a 20,000 foot view of this thing and try to figure out what's going on?'

Nearly half of our student body right now were removed from their classrooms and forced to go interact with their faculty and peers virtually. A lot of our students struggled to use new online applications and they struggled to find good internet connections. I can tell you stories about school buses picking up students and driving them outside their buildings so they could have an internet connection to do their classwork because they didn't have good internet connections at home. Or where students couldn't go to the library or some of the others places that they would go were closed due to the pandemic. So it was a life changing challenge for a lot of the students. For two years, they virtually had no interaction with anyone other than their immediate family.

I always like to say put yourself in a place of I'm a high school grad. I'm preparing to go to college, I'm excited, I'm nervous, I got all those emotions going on. I get there, and I'm there, you know, a week or two, and I get sent back home to wear a mask everywhere you go. And it just altered people's personalities. And so we've got two years of students that were at WVU when it happened and two years of students that were in high school when it happened. So it's really gonna take time to try to get back to any sense of normalcy. In fact, I feel like we've done everything that was reasonably possible to try to alleviate the effects of the pandemic. But I don't believe things on college campuses are ever going to be like they were pre-pandemic. I think it's going to take us some time to determine exactly what the new normal is going to look like for a college student, but I don't think we're ever going to see it, you know, exactly, like it was pre-pandemic.

How did COVID-19 impact student success?

Jacob: That's a great transition here, exploring career advice, and really how that's been impacted and had to shift as a result of everything that's happened. And you mentioned some of that reengagement. So you know, how are students responding to the services you're providing? And how are they engaging with those resources?

Dave: For us specifically in Career Services, those were extremely challenging. I'm just continuously thankful for my staff. We run an office that literally, I used to say ''virtually everything' but now I have to say literally, because virtual means something now, haha. That literally everything that we do in our office, all of our programming was created and designed to be done in-person. Whether it was our career fairs, on campus recruiting, I mean, OCR is a thing. You know, it's on campus, it's in person, it's live. Interview processes, all of our student appointments, seminars, classroom presentations. We'd offer our own career courses, all of those were designed to be in person. And we had to literally do an about face on that and move everything to the virtual environment in less than three weeks. Obviously zoom and teams and all these things begin to surface and companies were quickly coming out. There were virtual career fair platforms, coming out of the woodwork all of a sudden in our industry.

So it was really tough, switching everything over. We were successful, I felt like we had a lot less of a drop off in recruiting, of our recruiters attending our virtual career fairs, we moved to a virtual career fair platform. I can tell you that of the two primary areas was current virtual career fairs and virtual appointments.

Our classes went online, which was actually a good thing. We still now offer them both in the classroom and online, which has improved opportunities for students to take the online classes. We offer our online classes mid-semester, which means a student can pick those up kind of halfway through the year if they see they need a credit hour. And they can, they can jump in there. And it doesn't impact their schedule, you know, because the class is online, so it fits into their schedule pretty nicely.

I can tell you, nobody likes virtual career fairs. Nobody involved. We don't like them from career services or the admin side. Employers don't like them, and students don't like them. It always surprises me a little which technologies take off with students and which ones don't and it's hard to predict. There are advantages to the virtual career fair platform. I tried to tell students anytime we get a chance, it's kind of like buying your tickets in advance at Disney. You know, instead of having to wait in line to meet with a recruiter, you go and you're scheduled for a time at 11:15. And at 11:15, you log in, and you've got a 15 minute talk with your recruiter. But they just haven't really embraced it too much. I think it's too easy to decide not to show up. We still have issues with employers not showing up. There's recruiters that have no shows at the end of the day. And so the career fairs really haven't caught on much, we still are gonna offer it because the big advantage is that I can be a engineering company in Alaska, and I can attend a career fair in West Virginia and it doesn't cost me anything to travel there. So you know it really does cast our nets a lot wider.

So, ironically, the part that has caught on really well with students that isn't going to go away, are virtual appointments. So we went to 100% virtual appointments, whether that's a career counseling appointment, going over your resume reviews, or practice interviews, whatever the case might be. We offer quite a number of different types of appointments for our students. But even now that we've gone back, we've been over a year now full time in person, 80% of our appointments are still virtual. So those are done through our platform that we use our career services management platform. I literally will have a career counselor sitting here in their office, conducting an appointment with a student on the computer, who the student is sitting 100 feet away out in the Student Union. And the meeting is virtual instead of in person.

Listen Now: Making Career Services Mission Critical

Jacob: Yeah, that idea of, what you said, technology picking up in certain ways for students, you know, some of it being adopted quickly. In other cases resistances. It's a really interesting piece to all of this. One of the key pieces that I wanted to talk about today was your Hire A Mountaineer campaign. You mentioned that to me, what's been maybe a couple of weeks ago, and I thought that was a really cool slogan. And so I thought others might be really interested in hearing a little bit more about that campaign, and how you are helping your students land their dream jobs after graduation.

Dave: So we started the Hire A Mountaineer campaign to recruit our alumni. Alumni are an interesting bunch to career centers. They literally represent all three different populations that we work with. An alumni may be a recruiter, you know, that can come back with their company and recruit at WVU. They may be a job seeker, they may be an alum that wants to change career paths, or maybe lost a job and looking for a new one. And they can also help, they can be mentors. We use alumni to use our recruiters and particularly alumni will have resume review clinics that they'll participate in, or maybe mock interviews, and they'll help with that. So alumni can potentially be a huge resource, and often an underutilized resource. So the Hire A Mountaineer campaign was something we put together with our alumni association to try to enlist, if you will, some of our alumni in those different areas, let them know that we're here for them. But there's also things they can do to help us. The downside of alumni is that typically the ones that are willing to help are pretty successful. They're out and engaged, which means they're busy. So you know the saying, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. A lot of times they have great intentions, but it's just very difficult for them to maybe keep up to that. So the Hire A Mountaineer campaign eventually sort of turned back into a slogan that we use in our marketing and our employer marketing. And mostly when on event announcements, if we'd send emails out to potential employers, we would have that on there and how to get involved. It's on posters and banners and we print it on employer gifts that we give out at career fairs and, and things like that.

But honestly, it wasn't until a year or so ago, when we got reengaged, with Steppingblocks, that we brought that back up, because what Steppingblocks has allowed us to identify alumni in those critical career pathways, even right down to the specific company, or a specific major that they graduated from. So we're using that data a lot to help us identify where our alumni are working. It might be to identify a specific alum that will let us get a point of contact with a new company, or a company that's of interest to our students, that sort of thing.

Take a Tour: Go Behind the Scenes With Graduate Outcomes Data

So it's really allowed us, one of the things actually moving into the next part a little bit, is that everything has become so customized now, for the individual student. I was talking to our head of academic advising the other day, WVU just hired a new Director of Advising that they oversee advising across colleges. So each college is responsible for advising, but this person helps them by sharing best practices and things and to try to make sure that we're offering students the best advising as possible. And I was talking to this person, and I said, 'academic advising is very, very important. But it's also relatively easy to do, because the curriculum is black and white. It's kind of carved in stone, we have several different applications involved to help us help a student make sure they're taking the right courses.' So if we have 150, undergraduate degrees, we have 150, different paths that somebody can go academically. But from a career advising standpoint, we have 23,000 undergraduate students, we have 23,000 different career paths that those students are going to take, every single one of them is unique. So that requires a great deal of specialization and customization on our part, to make sure that we're helping those students be really well prepared.

Jacob: I think we've heard a lot about that need for customization, you know, for the individual student experience. That's sort of been part of this great wave of student success initiatives on campuses over the past, you know, 15-20 years. That sort of idea of tailoring support to the individual student is really important. And so, anything else you'd like to share about leveraging data to help support this idea of career advising of the future?

Dave: It's absolutely critical. I'm just gonna run through a really quick example of how on campus recruiting has evolved. I'll use accounting as my example, it's a nice clean major that if you're going to work in your field, you're going to be an accountant. So the average corporate job posting today for an entry level college position, receives on average 250 applications. Almost always, the first interaction that our students have with a company is submitting a resume online or completing an online application. It's completely done online. So what that means is, what used to be the challenging thing for a recruiter to determine is how smart someone is, is kind of like that first 10 second check. So because they're not going to get an opportunity to speak to that person, they're going to be looking at or reading an image of their resume on their screen, one sheet of paper. So now our recruiters will tell us even if they're reading it or it's being done with artificial intelligence from some applicant tracking system thats scanning it for keywords and key phrases. They're literally spending 10 seconds through that resume the first time.

So I've got 250 resumes and my recruiter says 'I want to interview six people for one position.' So right away, you know, you put yourself in that person's position, I got to get rid of 244 of these resumes. So the first time through all they are going to do is say, 'Okay, are you from an accredited accounting program at one of the schools where we like to recruit, and what was your GPA? Do you meet our GPA threshold?' Let's say this is one of the top accounting firms and their threshold is 3.5. So 10 seconds through, they don't even read your name, they're gonna look for those three things and narrow down the yes pile. So let's say they get the 250 down a fifth. So now all of a sudden, I have 50 applicants that all meet my academic requirements: from the right school, the right degree, and the right grades.

So now what do I look for? So now what they start looking for is what co-curricular and extracurricular things have you done to make you a better fit for our company? Better prepared for this job and a better fit for our company? Okay, so those are the criteria that they use. It might be work, might be experiential learning, you've mentioned internships, it's a huge one. Our recruiters will tell us, they would rather see someone that just meets their GPA threshold that has experience, than someone that far exceeds their GPA threshold with no experience. So experience, communication skills, demonstrating leadership, all these all these extracurricular co-curricular things that will set them apart.

So it's literally changed how we do things here now. So what our career counselors, what we call career development specialists now, have moved away from a generalist model. We've put all of our majors here into one of six career pathways. And our career development specialists are assigned to those pathways. So let's use for example, accounting. Business communications is one of our pathways. I have a career development specialist assigned to that pathway. They can't be an expert on 150 majors. But the 16 within my pathway, I can become an expert on. So what our role now is, we're going to look at each individual student, meet with them. We say Okay, you're in accounting, but do you want to work for one of the top five firms? Do you want to work in a certain industry as an accountant?'

So once we identify that, then we need to be able to is leverage data. This is where the data comes in, we need to be able to look at Department of Labor data, go into Steppingblocks and look at where our alumni have been successful. And say, 'okay, not just do some co-curricular extracurricular things, which ones are going to be most beneficial to you and your specific career pathway?' So that's the first part. We need that data to be able to know which co-curricular and extracurricular activities are going to best prepare you for where you want to be right after WVU. So that's the first part and then the second part of that is being able to put those things, demonstrate them clearly and accurately on your resume. That's what's really become critical today. If you could have someone with the perfect skillset. KSAs, you know, we call knowledge, skill and ability for a job I'm looking for. But if their resume isn't clear and concise and doesn't show those KSAs, it doesn't exist to the person who's reading the resume. So it's literally revolutionized how we do things in our office now.

The Positive ROI of Graduate Outcomes Data

Jacob: As we're winding up here, one last question, what advice would you give to other campuses looking to develop strong programs to support students in this sort of customized approach to job searches?

Dave: Well, two things I think. First of all I mentioned earlier, if they're not already, utilizing their alumni and working with their alumni associations, it's just a really valuable resource. Like I said, I think it's a much underutilized resource. You're tapping into that loyalty, here we call it the Mountaineer family. Every school has that and I don't think we're in a lot of cases tapping into that enough.

But also the other thing is, don't be afraid to look into some of these new applications, these new resources and technology. Big data is just, it's amazing, the information that it opens up for you. You know, I think one of the best examples, the first kind of trial we did with Steppingblocks was we had a major here that’s fairly unique, it's landscape architecture. And we had the type of employers that we thought that our students were interested in, and the type of employers that had jobs they were interested in, were a little different. And so we were able to go in and literally research all of our alumni over the last 10 years that had graduated in that program and see where they work, and see what they were doing and see if they had to do more, you know, to get the jobs that they wanted. And actually surveyed a number of them to get some feedback. And it allowed us to, again, customization. It allowed us to make sure that we were marketing and inviting the right types of employers to our campus for those students. And even on a case by case basis, you know, we use it for a career counseling appointment, and a student says, "I've got this major, but I want to work in this industry, is that a possibility?" We can literally go in there and see if that's happened, and where it's happened and how it's happened and, and help that student be better prepared to make that type of career decision.

Jacob: Awesome. Well, great work. As always, Dave, I also appreciate the conversation today. I think this will be helpful for our colleagues around the country as they continue to respond to the new challenges that seem to be ever evolving on our campuses. So thanks for your time today.

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