Collegiate Athletics

Why Athletic Departments Need To Invest in Scalable Career Services Solutions… Like Now

What's your strategy for serving student-athletes remotely? And how do you plan to reach 100% of those students? COVID-19 has us thinking about the future of your department's career community... if you've got one, that is.

As bleak as college athletics may feel right now, it won't last. Football will eventually return, whether in the fall or the spring-- and with it, the rhythm of the college sports calendar.


Even when college sports do come back, however, lessons from COVID-19 will linger for those of us serving athletes in career services. And if these months of quarantine have shown us one thing, it's that we have got to get better at engaging athletes online.


Earlier this month, we talked about how departments need to accelerate their video strategy. Today, we're going to look at how departments absolutely need to invest in scalable career service solutions.


Here's what we mean by scalable:


Athletic departments need to invest in software solutions that allow them to dramatically expand the percentage of student-athletes they serve and dramatically improve the quality of care they provide. Without hiring an army of career counselors.


There is literally no other way

Buried beneath every athletic department's career center is an inconvenient truth: That if your career service program worked to its full desired intent, your center would be completely overwhelmed.


Think about it. What would you do if all 500+ of your student-athletes showed up to your mixer uninvited? What if they came into your office one afternoon? You'd need to rent the arena for a waiting room. 😂


Even if you've got a healthy Career & Leadership department of 3 or 4 staffers, there's still no way that your team can provide the personal touch and level of attention needed for every athlete to learn about career and connect with people who can help. Think about the time needed for emails, phone calls, 1-on-1 meetings (whether by Zoom or in-person), researching the alumni/employer databases, and making introductions…


Y'all are Superhuman🦸… but even so. There just aren't enough hours in the day.


In other words, literally the only way for your department to achieve its ambitious career placement objectives is for you to scale your programs.


And career placement isn't the only departmental outcome that may depend on scalable career services solutions.


Let's talk about your diversity and inclusion outcomes....



Scalable Solutions are a key to equitable access

One of the biggest challenges your career center faces is showing student-athletes you exist and that you're worth their very-limited time. And the fact of the matter is, most of those students who use career services are not first-generation and transfer students.

Unfortunately, many of the students most likely to use career services are from the most privileged backgrounds. "They have learned how to navigate complex systems and have the support networks that nudge them to schedule an appointment with a career coach or attend an information session with an employer" (Great article about the changing landscape of university career centers - only read it if you want to be fully convinced that you need to scale).


And the problem extends beyond who is scheduling appointments. For example, how representative of your student-athletes is your alumni mentor network? Have you sought out influential and successful BIPOC business leaders? Do these mentors reflect the backgrounds, beliefs, and interests of your athletes? Are there Black men and women for your athletes to model career after that aren't coaches or former pro players?


It may be uncomfortable to talk about, but it's well-established (see some resources at the end of this post) that providing BIPOC students with a wide variety of culturally-relevant career role models and mentors is an important step toward these students' career outcomes. So what steps are you taking to scale the base of relevant alumni that your students-athletes engage with?


Bottom line: there are barriers that stand in the way of 100% of your student-athletes receiving career services. Scaling your services to reach more students is a key to making your department's access more equitable.


Not talking about job boards

I can hear the replies now: "We've got 🤝! We've got job boards! Our students have scalable solutions!"




That's an important step in the process: connecting your student-athletes with high-quality job opportunities.


But here's the thing: Before you can make use of a job board, you've got to know what the heck you want to do with your life! The job boards are of limited value to students who don't know anything about what it means to have the job.


Scaling your career center is about facilitating the key career conversations with as many students as possible.


Let's break that down:

  • Facilitating: It's time to realize that your staff is best suited to be the bridge between student-athletes and the people who can give them career answers. Your job is to build and manage the network.
  • Key career conversations: these are the conversations that change the course of a student's life. It's when someone who's in the field tells them about why the work matters and ignites the spark of inspiration within them.
  • As many students as possible: You and your team want to make a difference in students' lives. Scalable career community is a force multiplier for your work. Job boards aren't community.


We've gotta get better online if we want to survive

One key takeaway from this time of quarantine: universities have to get better at online career service offerings. And I'm not talking about just moving your in-person events and meetings to Zoom sessions. We're betting you've seen the same level of engagement (from the same student-athletes) for these events as your in-person events.


Why? Because moving an event online doesn't naturally scale it. Think of it like an "opportunity funnel."

Career Opportunity Funnel

At the bottom of the funnel are your jobs - this is the hopeful outcome for each student-athlete: meaningful career placement. So at the bottom of the funnel is: job offer/acceptance.


A little further up are all your job-related services - job fairs, connections to specific jobs, and job boards. These services are fantastic, but they only matter to students who are considerably far along in their career process.


A little further up are your interview- and leadership-related services. Again, these are valuable skills, but without career direction, they're not as valuable as they could be.


In order to engage a great percentage of student-athletes, you have to head up the funnel and provide services to people who don't know what they're looking for quite yet. This is the space for career community.


Career-minded thought leaders in athletic departments must think about how to create scalable career community online.


Scaling in Practice - UW-Madison's Career Community

UW-Madison Athletics takes career preparation for athletes very seriously. A key goal for the department is 100% meaningful career outcomes, and there are 9 staffers involved in serving student-athletes. But even with that team, UW-Madison's Career & Leadership (C&L) team was outnumbered.


So in the fall of 2019, UW-Madison Athletics partnered with Grafted to build a scalable online career community for its students. It's a branded app-- meaning the U gets the credit for building the community. It's secure-- meaning the C&L team decides who gets access, ensuring a high level of engagement. And the level of engagement blows the roof off 🤯 traditional in-person career events.


By the spring of 2020, UW-Madison had all of its 850+ student-athletes plugged into an online career community with hundreds of alumni in different career fields. They were organizing online broadcasts in the app where alumni fielded career questions from athletes; they were connecting athletes with the most relevant career mentors; they were multiplying the value of their efforts to generate meaningful career conversations.


In other words, by the time COVID-19 came along, UW-Madison had an infrastructure in place to (1) communicate with athletes; (2) keep career conversations rolling virtually; (3) continue to provide incredible value to student-athletes.


You can read more about UW-Madison's work with Grafted here.


Bottom Line

Working remotely hasn’t prevented you from providing best-in-class support for your student-athletes. But COVID-19 provides a great opportunity to think about how well this one-on-one care scales. 

Do you have solutions in place to equitably reach 100% of your student-athletes? Regardless of how far along they are in their career discovery journey?

We’d love to chat with you about how Grafted does just that.


BTW, here are those resources we promised you:

Baker, A. R., & Hawkins, B. J. (2016). Academic and Career Advancement for Black Male Athletes at NCAA Division I Institutions. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2016(150), 71–82. doi:10.1002/ace.20187

Martin, B. E., Harrison, C. K., Stone, J., & Lawrence, S. M. (2010). Athletic voices and academic victories: African American male student-athlete experiences in the Pac-Ten. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 34(2), 131–153. doi: 10.1177/0193723510366541


Carter, A. R., & Hart, A. (2010). Perspectives of mentoring: The Black female student athlete. Sport Management Review, 13(4), 382–394. doi: 10.1016/j.smr.2010.01.003


Simiyu, N. W. W. (2009). Triple tragedy of the black student athlete. The Sport Digest, 17(3). Retrieved from

February 18, 2021
Jeff White
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