Scaffolding Career Curriculum in the University Setting

By Patrick Akos, Bryant Hutson and Stephenie McIntyre

Postsecondary institutions across the United States commonly offer credit-bearing courses in career development to support students as they explore and identify career paths (Hansen et al., 2016). Although career courses are but one of a host of services offered by career centers (often in partnership with academic units), the many iterations of these classes have evidence to support student benefits (Folsom & Reardon, 2003). For example, Reardon and Lenz (2019) shared lessons learned from an amazing 45 years of career classes at Florida State University that has become part of the institutional culture. In fact, reviews of this type of curriculum over the last century (e.g., Folsom & Reardon, 2003; Reardon, Peace, & Burbrink, 2021) point to a wide range of positive outcomes related to career development (e.g., career decision making, vocational identity) to broader university impact (e.g., retention, GPA).

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been offering career courses for nearly 30 years. However, the two, one-hour pass-fail courses were recently transformed into a enriched developmental sequence of career courses. We share the context of this course development and some recent outcome data from the courses.

The career courses at UNC-CH are offered through the School of Education (SOE) in partnership with University Career Services (UCS). Historically, one section of each course (Career Explorations and Career Planning and Job Searching) was offered each semester (including summer), serving 30-40 students. We began the course transformation by enhancing these one-hour courses into theory informed, graded courses (letter grades impact GPA). Further, we designed two three-hour courses – titled Life Career Design and Making Liberal Arts “Work” to extend exploration and planning, incorporate more contemporary career theory, better intersect with the mission of the liberal arts institution, and more fully meet the needs of juniors and seniors. We use a conglomeration of career development theories, positive psychology, and NACE career competencies. We also believe the new three-hour courses should meet general education requirements to enhance interest by students and respect from the general college unit. To support other institutional efforts at career development curriculum, we share below a synopsis of the structure of those courses and their preliminary student data.

Career Course Sequence

EDUC 111: Career Exploration is a one credit hour course designed to introduce first- and second-year students to career development theories and processes, while providing a framework for exploring and discovering their interests and skills. The course integrates interactive tools to support students in taking ownership of academic and career decisions that incorporate their individual needs and aspirations.

EDUC 211: Career Planning and Job Searching is a one credit hour course designed for sophomores, juniors and seniors who are preparing to embark on their internship/job search. Students learn how to develop the necessary tools and skills required to execute an effective job

search, while understanding and applying theoretical concepts related to strengths, adaptability, and resilience in career development. Outcomes include career documents (resumes and cover letters), branding and social media (LinkedIn profile), and career connections (networking and interviewing).

EDUC 311: Life-Career Design is a three-hour course that examines the contemporary research in career development (e.g., career construction, life design). Substantial class time dedicated to encouraging students to consider their own and common assumptions regarding career development (e.g., opportunity structures; strategies in metacognition and heuristics). Students interrogate individual and collective behavior in career development (e.g., happiness, purpose, decision-making, values, experiential learning). The course guides students to integrate their new understanding of design thinking to apply the concepts to life action plans. Students increase self-awareness and self- advocacy to maximize their potential and envision multiple pathways for further education and life-work balance.

EDUC 411: Making Liberal Arts Work is the final three-hour course in the developmental career sequence. Students reach contemporary scholarship and learn how to translate the outcomes of a liberal arts education to the world of work. Critical reflection on concurrent and diverse internship experiences are utilized to contextualize skills and further explicate career identity working in a knowledge and digital ecology. Designed with an experiential requirement, a corequisite of participation in an internship, part-time job or work-study program concurrent with the class. To date, students at UNC-CH are not eligible for internship credit in departments if the work is considered outside of their academic major. Providing an integrative, major agnostic course for credit allows student exposure to diverse works experiences/settings.

Photo By Armin Rimoldi From Pexels

Our Preliminary Data

Unlike the history of research in the career course at Florida State University (Reardon & Lenz, 2019), UNC-CH only recently began to collect data on the outcomes of the course. The outcome assessment varied across each course aligned to the developmental sequence. In EDUC 111, the instrument was administered as a retrospective survey, while in 211 and 311 it was administered pre and post (411 has not yet been evaluated).

In EDUC 111, students scored themselves highest in understanding career development theories (and how they relate to their experience and in locating resources for career planning. In EDUC 211, pre-post paired samples t-test demonstrated statistically significant gains for students in how to use job resources to identify and apply for jobs/internships (effect size 1.25) and understanding self to development personal and professional narratives related to career goals (effect size 1.17). Similarly, statistically significant pre-post gains in EDUC 311 included learning about career and life design and decision-making strategies (with effect sizes of 1.84 and 1.44, respectively).

Beyond learning objectives, we also monitored growth in National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Competencies for Career Readiness. We discovered the highest means for global/intercultural fluency (e.g., demonstrating openness, inclusiveness) in EDUC 111 and statically significant growth in both EDUC 211 (Oral/Written Communication, Teamwork/Collaboration, Career Management) and EDUC 311 (Career Management). This growth was substantial with effect sizes as high as 1.25. Finally, preliminary results support growth in vocational clarity (Holland, Johnston, & Asama, 1993). In EDUC 211, 35.5% of students indicated on the pre- survey that they were “confused about the whole problem of deciding on a career” compared to 4.8% on the post-survey (X2(1, N=52)=6.656, p=.010). Similarly, in EDUC 311, 64.3% responded “true” to that statement on the pre-survey, while 19.2% respondent affirmative on the post (X2(1, N=54)=11.192,p=.001). For both classes, chi-square pre/post differences were statistically significant.

*A full data report is available from the first author.


The design and delivery of career courses in postsecondary institutions are necessarily contextual. Whereas Florida State offers a long standing, widely disseminated impactful course designed around Cognitive Information Processing, we built our limited offerings into a developmental sequence integrated into the general education requirements of the university. Other career specialists can find utility in thinking about how best to serve their students in the career curriculum.



Folsom, B., & Reardon, R. (2003). College career courses: Design and accountability. Journal of Career Assessment, 11, 421-450. https://doi.org/10.1177/1069072703255875

Hansen, J., & Jackson, A., & Pedersen, T. (2016). Career development courses and educational outcomes: Do career courses make a difference? Journal of Career Development, 44, 10.1177/0894845316644984

National Association of Colleges and Employers. (n.d.). Career readiness defined. https://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/career-readiness-defined/

Reardon, R. C., & Lenz, J. L. (2018). Developing, managing, and evaluating a university career course for 45 years: A case study. (Technical Report No. 59). Center for the Study of Technology in Counseling and Career Development. http://purl.flvc.org/fsu/fd/FSU_libsubv1_scholarship_submission_1519072870_7e150785

Reardon, R. C., Peace, C. S., & Burbrink, I. E. (2021). College career courses and instructional research from 1976 through 2019. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000254



Patrick AkosPatrick Akos' professional experiences as a teacher, school and college counselor inform his work as a Professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Strengths-Based School Counseling (Galassi & Akos, 2007) is the theoretical frame he utilizes for inquiry and practice. The strengths framework is based in humanistic traditions, and is empirically supported by contemporary scholarship (e.g., positive psychology). He is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor, and teacher and K-12 school counselor in North Carolina. He is completing his term as a trustee on the National Career Development Association board in 2021. He can be reached at pta@unc.edu


Bryant HutsonBryant L. Hutson, PhD, is University Director of Assessment for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research focuses on the application of positive psychology and strengths-based theories in higher education assessment practice. He can be reached at bhutson@email.unc.edu


Stephenie McintyreStephenie McIntyre is the Associate Director at University Career Services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She holds a B.A. in English from Rutgers University and an M.A. in Counseling from Montclair State University. Prior to arriving at UNC, she spent over 10 years in Career Services at both small institutions and large state universities in the greater Philadelphia area. Her passion is connecting individuals from diverse backgrounds to resources that support their personal and career aspirations. She can be reached at stephenie.mcintyre@unc.edu


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