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Improving student enrollment and retention through on-campus employment and career development

March 2, 2022

Erica Wagner

Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs, Portland State University

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.

When enrollment declines and potential college-goers question the return on investment of a bachelor’s degree, we need to recruit and retain students by linking on-campus employment with career development and academic curriculum.

A recent study based on U.S. Dept. of Education’s College Scorecard data shows that a third of all bachelor’s degrees take the majority of graduates more than ten years to recover their cost of attendance. This statistic is concerning and may be an indicator of why freshman enrollment has been decreasing while work-based education is increasing. For example, between 2012 and 2019, apprenticeships doubled to 700,000 including expansion into “white collar” industries, according to The New York Times, and enrollment in short-term credential courses increased 70% since the COVID-19 pandemic, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The need to address the value proposition of the bachelor’s degree is strongly felt at my institution where social mobility and improved employability are key reasons students attend. As one of the largest employers in the state, Portland State University has an opportunity to incubate the region’s future professional workforce by explicitly linking on-campus employment with career development and academic curricula. Not only will this help with post-graduate career placement it will improve our students’ sense of belonging. In fact, at PSU, student persistence is 7% higher for those with on-campus jobs than those without.

As associate dean of undergraduate programs in PSU’s business school, I work with students whose chosen major is often as much about future employability as it is about intellectual inquiry. In an effort to help students improve their job prospects, I have been experimenting with an on-campus employment program with great success.

By paying the wages of students through my discretionary fund, I enable campus departments with limited payroll funds to employ and mentor business students whose area of study matches the requisite job responsibilities. To date, I have matched 24 students with campus departments/functional areas over the last few years (from the university hotel, communications, payroll, advising, and more).

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All students have completed their on-campus employment contracts and many departments have extended the duration up through the students’ graduation. Each student has graduated and is working in their chosen field. These graduates point to their on-campus employment experience as instrumental to their success.

During my fellowship I wanted to understand how PSU might scale my experimental program to serve more than the handful of business majors I was able to help. To this end, I utilized EAB resources, including the Integrating Academic and Career Development Study, to learn more about innovative approaches taken at universities nationwide. My EAB Strategic Leader also referred me to university programs that implemented new tuition models tied with employment[1].

My cohort peers offered developmental feedback as did members of my PSU community. As a result, I am proposing the expansion of my experimental on-campus employment program by using federal relief dollars to build out the program where eligible students are matched with PSU departments/functions based on student major/career interest. By re-purposing existing career education resources such as our co-op program curriculum and Career Center classes, we have the beginnings of a scalable program.

Evaluating the effectiveness of the program in terms of student retention, graduation rates, and return on investment for the university (and its graduates) will form the basis for obtaining additional funding to expand the program. There might also be opportunities to link the federal work-study program with this new on-campus employment initiative.

Future funding models could include a new work-based degree pathway with a distinct tuition rate, redistribution of central funding to support student success, partnerships with industry, and charitable giving. I envision this program becoming an effective recruiting tool attracting students across the region interested in work-based education and an improved return on investment.


[1] Institutions with innovative campus-based employment programs:


College of the Ozarks:


Miami Ohio:

Metropolitan College:

See the fellows’ blogs from the capstone projects

Erica Wagner and others participated in EAB’s Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship in fall 2021

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