Rethinking the Student-Affairs Cattle Call


August 03, 2017

The first moment of profound doubt came in the form of a GoFundMe campaign from one of my graduate students. He was raising money to cover his travel expenses to a national conference where he would be participating in the annual rite of passage known in the student-affairs field as "The Placement Exchange." or "placement." It’s where hundreds of employers, and many more candidates, meet for brief interviews over small tables lined up in a convention space the size of Fenway Park.

My first reaction was to dismiss his plea on the basis of "What if every student asked me for money?" My second reaction was to pledge $10, figuring that if I were at the conference and he and I met for a quick bite, I would pick up the tab, and really, even if all my current students asked for support, I could afford $10 for each of them.

I set the issue aside for a while, but as anyone who teaches in a graduate student-affairs program knows, students never let you get too comfortable. In one of my courses last spring, I assigned students to write a blog post on the topic of their choice — as an exercise in "engaging in the discourse community" in a format that is currently in vogue. One student wrote about the cost of attending the annual conference — something he felt he needed to do in order to interview for jobs — and how it was prohibitively expensive. "It is confusing," he wrote, "that for a profession that encompasses the values of access and equity, there are still events that secondhandedly create barriers for its participants."

At about the same time, a former graduate student posted a similar missive to Facebook, challenging our profession to reconsider its one-location-many-interviews strategy, citing both the costs and the implication of in-person bias for hiring.

And that was it: I was indicted. Damn.

Throughout my career, I have been on both sides of the placement process. I was once an eager young professional wearing a suit, carrying a neat leather portfolio, and filling up my interview schedule. I was fortunate enough at that point in my career to be part of a two-income household (even if my income was an $11,000 graduate-assistant stipend). I was able, then, to pay for registration, a plane ticket (from Baltimore to San Francisco, so not inexpensive), a portion of a hotel room, some cheap meals, and a couple of new professional outfits. My placement adventures ended well for me with an eventual job offer from a college that had interviewed me twice during the conference.

Many more times, I have been on the employer side of this equation — reviewing dozens of résumés and scheduling as many potential hires into my interview slots as would fit. I always brought with me a nice table cover, a stack of brochures, some candy, and worked with blazing efficiency — alone or with colleagues — to plow through 15 or 16 candidates a day for three days. I have also been a vice president for student affairs, sending my staff off to do the recruiting.

So over these many years, I have spent more than a little time on a placement process that is a longstanding ritual in my chosen profession.

At the conference I attended this year I walked through the convention hall while the Placement Exchange was going on and watched from an upper-level window the buzz of activity below: the employers sitting at their decorated tables, the candidates waiting to be called, the volunteers zipping around in their identifying vests. For the first time, after almost three decades of watching the mechanics of placement, I thought, this is all wrong. My graduate students’ voices were in my head and I had to admit, they had a point.

We are not the only profession to host this kind of event. The Modern Language Association, for example, is one of many academic associations that hold interviews at their annual conference. But we are not the MLA or any other scholarly association. We are a profession that focuses on serving students. We swear on the bible of inclusion, diversity, opportunity, equity, and social justice every single day. We proudly wear our rainbow flags, state our pronouns, and open our hearts and offices to undocumented students, first-generation students, veteran students — you name them, we welcome them.

What we don’t seem to do very well is acknowledge that our graduate students and young professionals may not be in a financial position to take advantage of one of the perks of our profession — central casting, er, centralized placement — in order to pursue employment opportunities.

This is not a new issue. For years I have heard graduate students and poorly paid professionals gripe about the costs of attending job fairs at a conference, and I’ve been among the Placement Exchange’s defenders. It is a great way to put your best self forward in front of a lot of prospective employers.

As an employer, it is a cost-efficient way to see if a candidate who looks good on paper matches up with that promise in person. When people have complained about the cost, I’ve casually responded that it’s just what we do. Buy as cheap a plane ticket as you can get. Share a hotel room with your classmates. Eat a steady diet of free cheese cubes and carrot sticks at whatever reception you can get in to.

Even with all that cost-cutting, though, the price of travel, accommodations, and registration can climb toward $700, $800, even $1,000 or more, depending on the location. And the harsh truth is, these graduate students and young professionals are not like my peers and I were 25 or 30 years ago. Many are themselves first-generation students or undocumented students (whom we have recruited into our field) or are simply trying to live on a very limited income. They bear the burden of student loans beyond anything I could have imagined as a graduate student. They may be getting a free education but they still struggle to pay rent, buy groceries, and replace their worn-out winter boots.

But placement as a concept has two troubling aspects, and only one of them is money. The other is bias. I hired people who came to the annual conference. And if I did that, I overlooked those who didn’t come. I believed that a face-to-face interaction told me bundles about a person — how they interacted, how they presented themselves, how they stood out among their peers.

What I didn’t admit to myself then, but will acknowledge now, is that it also told me what they looked like, how they dressed, how they shook hands, how they made eye contact (or didn’t) — in sum, how they "fit" with my expectations of the person I was looking to hire. That information influenced my decisions about whom to pursue with a second interview or an invitation for a campus interview.

I think maybe I owe quite a few apologies. They should go out to the applicants who couldn’t come to placement but applied for a position at my institution in good faith, and only got a look if I wasn’t dazzled at the conference, or if I had a late opening. These apologies also should go out to the candidates I interviewed who didn’t dazzle me in that 25-minute span of canned questions and canned answers.

Maybe it’s time we challenge the placement model itself — and not just adjust it, as we have over these decades, to meet various needs. Maybe we need to consider doing away with it.

I know it is the source of significant revenue for our associations, and I know many employers value what it offers. But perhaps we need to give some thought to what it doesn’t offer: fair, unfettered, inclusive access for all of our graduate students and underpaid professionals to the profession that has called them.

We talk all the time about the importance of "fit" when it comes to employment — as though interviewing and hiring are like the process of choosing clothing off a rack and trying it on in a dressing room. If that’s the case, we need to make sure everyone has equal access to every rack of clothing, and every dressing room is accessible to all. We need to make sure, too, that our sense of fashion is open-minded and inclusive of those who do not dress in the expected ways. Only then will our profession, and professionals, truly mirror the students we seek to serve.

Lee Burdette Williams is director of higher-education training for the College Autism Network and a lecturer at the University of Vermont’s graduate program in higher education and student affairs.