Reconsidering College Student Career Options in 2009 and Beyond

By Patrick Lennahan

The issues influencing college students' career options have been wide-ranging and tumultuous in the last half of 2008, including a worldwide economic meltdown, raging shifts in employment and unemployment, corporate financial implosions, massive layoffs, state government budget cuts, and amazing growth in federal spending deficits.  This "perfect storm" of a faulty global economy has already begun to have a multi-tiered effect on the college students with whom we work, changing their options for next semester, next year, and beyond.

What Are We Up Against?

The magnitude of the economic downturn in the United States and abroad is not completely clear yet, but as this article went to press on December 1, 2008, the National Bureau of Economic Research declared that the US economy has been in a recession since December 2007.  New corporate layoffs and employment "consolidations" are being announced every week, with a trickle-down effect reaching across every sector of our society.  The sector that career services practitioners face, the post-secondary student population, will definitely be affected.  In a November 21, 2008 press release, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) indicated that hiring prospects for the graduates in the Class of 2009 appeared to be as strong as last year, but that employers are keeping "a watchful eye on those hiring needs, so they can shift gears if necessary."  The data for this most recent portion of the Job Outlook 2009 report was gathered from mid-August through October 3, 2008, just as the tidal wave of corporate failures was beginning to rise.   The latest data from the national economic experts suggests that the deteriorating employment trends will not begin to stabilize until late 2009 or early 2010, and this picture will not show significant improvement in many regions until late 2010 or even into 2011. Thus the impact on graduating, current, and prospective students will require continuous monitoring.  Career services professionals need to be well informed on all of these factors so that we may likewise inform our students and other constituents.

Current and Prospective Students

The most immediate impact on current and prospective students will be in the area of college choice.  Some current students are already exploring the necessity of transferring from their current campus to a less expensive one.  This will also affect prospective students in their initial choice, as sources for family financial contributions dry up.  Some of the choices to be made reflect stark concerns over finances and expenses, even for many on-going students:

  • Private vs. public institutions
  • In-state vs. out-of-state institutions
  • Community colleges vs. 4-year colleges vs. universities
  • Commuter vs. residential institutions
  • Urban vs. rural institutions
  • Is study abroad still affordable?

There will also be an impact on financial aid awards, with reductions already being announced by some state agencies due to funding cuts related to state income shortfalls.  Those same funding cuts are leading to tuition increases for many institutions, some already announced and going into effect in January 2009.  The awarding of student loans, either to the student or the parents, has tightened up considerably as lenders have become highly cautious about minimizing loan default risk.  Students are being caught between increasing costs and decreasing funds.  To make matters even worse, part-time jobs, summer jobs, and internships are expected to tighten up considerably over the next six months.  There are certainly still some jobs to be had, but students will need to be more open-minded and goal-oriented when seeking work.  Career services staff must assist these students to pursue a creative, realistic and far-reaching job search.

Graduate and Graduating Students

Some of the effects on graduate students will be similar to those on the undergraduates.  They will need to be more careful about selecting a program of study at an affordable institution.  They should expect diminished opportunities for financial support, as well as limited chances for part-time jobs and internships.  Teaching and research assistantships started to disappear at the end of last summer and they will certainly take another hit in the coming year, while some graduate assistant benefits (e.g., health insurance) may also end up on the chopping block.  Graduate students should prepare themselves very carefully for the job search, since they may end up in competition with the BA and BS graduates for jobs and salaries.

The new baccalaureate graduates will also need to be very well prepared for the job search and should start as early as possible (i.e., this month) for what will be an extremely competitive job market.  Career services staff will be able to use articles from the local and national press to underscore the even greater importance of a strong resume, persuasive cover letter, and practiced interviewing skills this year.  It will be crucial for any new graduate to be able to clearly articulate the value that they bring to an employer in their letters, in networking, and in their interviews.  Exercises presented by the career staff using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and its language about strengths and shortcomings can be very helpful in preparation for networking and interviewing.  We can already anticipate, however, that some recruiting organizations will reduce or eliminate their campus presence this year.  Some job offers already extended will be amended with later starting dates and some offers may be rescinded altogether.  Career services staff will need to counsel students through any of these unfortunate situations.

Getting an Edge in the Job Market with Assistance from Career Services

The seniors about to graduate should be encouraged to take full advantage of the typical array of services, including campus interview programs, job fairs, workshops, opportunities for formal and informal networking, and mentoring programs.  The employment picture will be very challenging over the next year, but hiring is still taking place.  Students should be visiting their campus career services office and taking advantage of the expertise of their career staff now more than ever.

  • Mentoring programs are often populated by individuals who are motivated to invest in the future of the students, such as alumni and parents of other students.
  • Those students who do not yet have some sort of career-related work or internship experience may benefit from a crash course in finding some; brief "career boot camp" or "Reality 101" programs are often successful at this.
  • Career services professionals can help students to reframe their career and occupational goals, broadening their focus to include opportunities in the not-for-profit arena or the federal government which they may have overlooked.

Of course, some students will decide that this year is the perfect time to defer the job search by pursuing graduate study, but that should be a well-founded decision to gain credentials and skills, rather than just an exercise in procrastination.

Students should be encouraged to make the most of their skill base in the job search, especially in areas such as technology, leadership, writing and communication, speaking and presentation, and quantitative and analytical skills.  Students can bring such skills into fields like health care, technology, or the federal government.  They can pursue opportunities in new fields and technologies, such as sustainability initiatives and "green" industries.  Most organizations are continuing to hire at some level even in this downturn, but they can be much more selective than before about which jobs get filled and by which candidates.  So a student will just have to work harder than before to prove that they are the most desirable candidate for the job.  And career services professionals will need to impress upon their students the need for preparation, persistence and drive in the job market in order to be successful over the next few years. 


Patrick Lennahan is a Career Advisor in the Career Services office (http://career.uri.edu) at the University of Rhode Island.  An adjunct professor in the Holistic Counseling program at Salve Regina University, he also maintains a private practice in career counseling.  He has worked in career services in higher education at six institutions over more than 30 years.  He holds a BA in Psychology from Seton Hall University and pursued doctoral studies in Counseling and Student Personnel Administration at Cornell University.  He is recognized as a Master Career Development Professional and a Global Career Development Facilitator.  He serves as Associate Editor of NCDA's Career Convergence in charge of the Post-Secondary Department.  He may be contacted at plennahan@uri.edu

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