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Career Services to Improve Student Retention

Career Services to Improve Student Retention

by Debra Hagen-Foley
May 12, 2016

Career services in higher education traditionally have functioned as placement services for graduating seniors. Student retention research demonstrates the significance of career services as a retention tool. As enrollments in many institutions have declined, student retention has become a factor of major significance.

Institutions of higher education assume responsibility for providing instruction leading to careers or preparation for further education. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES, 2015) only 59 percent of full-time students who were new to college in fall 2007 completed a bachelor’s degree within six years. Retention is a substantial issue in higher education due to the financial implications of student attrition. Among first-time, full-time students first enrolled in fall, 2012, 20% of students in four-year institutions and 40% of students in two-year institutions were not retained to Fall, 2013. Addressing issues relevant to student retention are an essential factor in enrollment management.

Students are particularly at risk of attrition during their first year of college. Vincent Tinto and John Gardner were among the first scholars to emphasize the importance of attending to student retention to increase completion and financial solvency of the institution. “The student has become a precious commodity. Institutions must now concern themselves with retaining students so that, if nothing else, budgets can be preserved” (Gardner, 1981, p. 79). Tinto, in 1987, suggested that retention efforts are of greater importance than recruitment, in terms of enrollment management. “As more institutions have come to utilize sophisticated marketing techniques to recruit students, the value of doing so has diminished markedly. Institutions have come to view the retention of students to degree completion as the only reasonable cause of action left to ensure their survival” (Tinto, 1987, p. 2). Retention efforts are also more cost effective than recruitment efforts.

According to Feldman (2005), initiating career development with incoming freshmen relates to increases student satisfaction and retention. Improved academic focus, clearly connected to a future career path reduces attrition (Niles & Harris-Bowlsbey, 2005; Tinto, 1987). Career development for undeclared students provides an effective opportunity for identifying an appropriate major.

Contrary to the traditional approach of providing placement services, career services as a retention tool should begin at the outset of the educational path, during student orientation, as a means of developing an academic identity aligned with a career path (Dorn, 1992). Defining career goals increases student commitment to educational goals and is among the strongest factors associated with student persistence and degree completion (Wyckoff, 1999). Research does not support the need for individual career counseling. Provision of effective career counseling can occur through student orientation and continue through h the institution’s first year experience seminar.

Most entering college students, as many as 75%, are uncertain regarding their career choice (Titley & Titley, 1980; Frost, 1991). A majority of students declaring a major at entry will change programs at least once prior to graduation (Foote, 1980; Gordon, 1984). Only 25% of seniors complete with the same major selected at entry (Willingham, 1985). Students may “declare” a major, but have not “decided” on a major. Rather, the college experience provides opportunities to explore potential career goals. Students want and need guidance in identifying career goals and defining the educational path to reach them. These findings apply to two- and four-year institutions, both public and private. A 2012 Noel-Levitz study (2013) of 3780 second-year students found that that 62% of two-year public institution students and nearly 78% of four-year public students are receptive to assistance in identifying “work experiences or internships related to my major.” As Tinto explains, “The college years are an important growing period in which new social and intellectual experiences are sought as a means of coming to grips with the issue of adult careers. They enter college with the hope that they will be able to formulate for themselves, not for their parents, a meaningful answer to that important question. Lest we forget, the college experience is as much, if not more, one of discovery as one of confirmation” (Tinto, 1993, p. 40).


Dorn, F.J. (1992). Occupational wellness: The integrations of career identity and personal identity. Journal of Counseling and Development. Vol. 1, No. 4.

Feldman, R. S., (2005). Improving the First Year of College, Research and Practice, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New Jersey.

Foote, B. (1980). Determined-and-undetermined-major students: How different are they? Journal of College Student Personnel 21(1), 29-34.

Frost, S.H. (1991). Academic advising for student success: A system of shared responsibility. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 3. The George Washington School of Education and Human Development, Washington DC.

Gardner, J. (1981). The freshman year experience. College and University, 61(4), 261-274.

Gordon, V. N. (1984). The undecided college student: An academic and career advising challenge. Springfield, Illinois: Thomas.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). The Condition of Education 2015.

Niles, S. & Harris-Bowlsby, J. (2005). Career development interventions in the 21st century. Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.

Noel-Levitz (2013). 2013 Student Retention Indicators Benchmark Report for Four-Year and Two-Year Institutions.

Spencer, N. G., Harris-Bowlsbey, J. (2005). Career Development Interventions in the 21st Century, 2nd edition, Pearson Education, Inc.

Tinto, V. (1987). Increasing student retention. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures for student attrition (2nd ed.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Titley, R. & Titley, B. (1980). Initial choice of college major: Are only the “undecided” undecided? Journal of College Student Personnel, 21(4), 293-298.

Willingham, W. W. (1985). Success in college: The role of personal qualities and academic ability. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

Wyckoff, S.C. (1999). The academic advising process in higher education: History, research, and improvement. Recruitment & Retention in Higher Education 13(1), pp. 1-3.