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Rethinking Traditional Approaches to Major and Career Development: The Major and Career Ecology Model


Rethinking Traditional Approaches to Major and Career Development: The Major and Career Ecology Model

Colleges and universities face mounting pressure to demonstrate their value in the face of high tuition costs, mounting student debt, the rise of affordable short-term credentials and online certificates, and lackluster college completion rates (Brink, 2022; Brown, 2018; Fain, 2020; NCES, 2021a). A major reason why people attend college is for career preparation and better career prospects; however, whether students are getting the skills they need to succeed in the workplace and pursue a fulfilling career path remains a top concern among graduates and the American public alike (Brown; Eagan et al., 2015; Pew Research Center, 2016; Stolzenberg et al., 2020).

Navigating a career path is especially complex for marginalized and underrepresented (e.g., low-income, racially minoritized, first-generation) college students who make up an increasing share of college-goers. These student groups often have not had equitable access to career development opportunities and resources, express less confidence their ability to navigate a career path successfully during college, and benefit from proactive guidance to understand various major and career pathways (DeOrtentiis et al., 2021; Gloria & Hird, 1999; Kitchen et al., 2021a; Stolzenberg et al.; Tate et al., 2015). Postsecondary leaders have an opportunity to lead the charge in addressing concerns about the value of a college degree by bolstering efforts to support students’ career development in ways that respond to the needs and goals of an increasingly diverse student population.

To date, traditional approaches to career development have typically relied on hosting a career fair, a few academic advising meetings, and in some cases a career services or internship office. Advising meetings are often short and focused on scheduling, identifying a major, and completing paperwork, and there is usually no requirement to attend career fairs or visit career services—limiting their potential to promote student success. It is time to reconsider how career support is delivered in college, acknowledge the limitations of traditional approaches, and explore ways to creatively leverage campus and community resources to support students as they explore and navigate career paths in college.

One promising approach that rises to this challenge is the at-promise student major and career ecology model, which identifies the power, potential, and synergistic impact of an ecological approach to career support that is asset-oriented and developmental and coordinates multiple opportunities for career exploration and development over time (Kitchen et al., 2021a). Educators discuss with the student their major and career interests and experiences, proactively coordinate a series of developmentally appropriate career-related experiences, and guide students as they make sense of their multiple career ecology experiences and navigate their career paths. Evidence shows that this ecological approach to career development effectively increases students’ major and career path success (Kitchen et al., 2021a, 2021b; Hypolite et al., 2022).

Consider the following illustrative example of the ecological approach to career development in practice: Armond is a first-year student who is meeting with his advisor to discuss his career aspirations. The advisor learns that in high school, Armond immensely enjoyed the opportunity to work with high-needs children during his part-time job at a daycare. He has a strong desire to work with high-needs children in a future career and is considering becoming a social worker—a profession he read about briefly online and has seen on TV shows. But Armond is unsure what the day-to-day life a social worker looks like and has never met anyone in social work.

To aid in his exploration, the advisor coordinates a developmentally appropriate career ecology that includes (a) a meeting with a faculty member in the Department of Social Work to discuss the social work major, (b) a connection to the Social Work Club to meet peers who share his interests, and (c) an introduction to an alumnus of the Department of Social Work who talks to him about what a social work career looks like. Subsequently, the advisor arranges a follow-up meeting to discuss what Armond learned to determine the best course forward as part of his career path development, which may include additional major- and career-related exploration opportunities.

Higher education leaders can play a key role in supporting the implementation of this ecological approach to career development in several ways:

  • Develop an ecology of major and career opportunities for students. Move away from isolated, stand-alone career initiatives, events, or activities and instead maximize the impact of these resources and opportunities on student success as part of a coordinated web (or ecology) of resources that address students’ multidimensional career development needs. Exposing students to multiple major and career development opportunities promotes informed decision-making and increases students’ confidence in the career paths they commit to.
  • Commission an inventory of existing career-related opportunities on campus and in the community and identify and address gaps in career resource offerings. Leverage this inventory to develop an accessible career resource guide or dashboard. Encourage advisors to use this resource to identify contacts for career development opportunities both on and off campus and coordinate a suitable career ecology for students according to their developmental needs.
  • Expand the role of career centers and advising offices and ensure they are adequately resourced. Career centers and advising offices may serve as natural hubs for connecting students to on- and off-campus career resources and contacts. These offices must proactively engage students to ensure that students are aware of their existence and role in supporting their career development. Make sure these offices have adequate resources and staff to enable advisors to build connections and spend the time necessary to understand students’ backgrounds, identities, and career-related experiences, goals, and needs.
  • Train advisors on what to look for to make informed assessments of where students are developmentally in their career path. Students in the exploring phase of career development typically have had few opportunities to meaningfully explore career options, limited career-related experiences and role models, and little understanding of the connection between majors and career options. Students who are in the established phase commonly have had opportunities to explore career options in depth, career role models or networks, and past experiences related to their prospective careers (e.g., part-time job, job shadowing); they also have specific career goals in mind and clearly understand the connections between their majors and intended careers. Advisors should act on their assessments accordingly to coordinate career ecologies that are responsive to where students are developmentally.
  • Leverage advising systems or e-portfolios to enable advisors to track students’ career development ecologies over time. Students’ major and career development is a process, and documenting students’ multiple career ecology experiences will enable advisors to keep track of students’ journeys, make informed decisions about how to best support students’ ongoing career path development, and guide students as they pursue next steps—recognizing that students’ career needs, barriers, and goals evolve with time.

Additional information about the at-promise student major and career ecology model and resources for practice are available at pass.pullias.usc.edu.


Brink, M. (2022, July 11). Public opinion on value of higher ed remains mixed. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/07/12/most-americans-skeptical-value-college-degree

Brown, A. (2018, July 26). Most Americans say higher ed is heading in wrong direction, but partisans disagree on why. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2018/07/26/most-americans-say-higher-ed-is-heading-in-wrong-direction-but-partisans-disagree-on-why

DeOrtentiis, P., Van Iddekinge, C., & Wanberg, C. (2021). Different starting lines, different finish times: The role of social class in the job search process. Journal of Applied Psychology, 107(3), 444–457. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000915

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Kitchen, J. A., Kezar, A., & Hypolite, L. (2021b). More than a pathway: Creating a major and career ecology that promotes the success of low-income, first-generation, and racially minoritized students. About Campus, 25(6), 4–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/1086482220988670

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Joseph A. Kitchen, PhD, is an associate research professor at the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education whose research focuses on the role of college transition, outreach, and support programs and interventions in promoting equity and college success among first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students.


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