Career Centers and Needs Assessments: Getting the Information You Need to Increase Your Success

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  • Journal of Career Development, Vol. 27, No. 3, 2001

    Career Centers and Needs Assessments:Getting the Information You Needto Increase Your Success

    Marie S. HammondUniversity of MissouriColumbia

    Career Centers are experiencing increasing demands to justify the cost oftheir services, document the effectiveness of their services, increase their useof technology, and provide a broader range of services. Given the limited per-sonnel and funding associated with most Career Centers, and it can seem likean overwhelming set of demands to respond to. This article explores the useof the needs assessment as a tool to provide evidence of effectiveness, justifycosts, and make effective decisions about the services they provide. This arti-cle will discuss the benefits of conducting a needs assessment, the process ofdeveloping and implementing a needs assessment using an needs assessmentproject conducted at a small, mid-western University.

    KEY WORDS: Needs Assessment; Career Centers; outcome evaluation; program eval-uation; survey questionnaires; continuous quality improvement.


    Fewer students, higher employment levels, and rising costs for post-secondary education have fueled increasing concern among collegeand university administrators regarding the costs associated with var-

    Address correspondence to Marie S. Hammond, now at Career Services, 17 HolmesStudent Center, The University of Tulsa, 600 South College Avenue, Tulsa, OK 74104;e-mail:


    0894-8453/01/0300-0187$19.50/0 2001 Human Sciences Press, Inc.

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    ious services offered by the institution. Lack of familiarity with thebenefits provided to the college or university provided by the CareerCenter can make the Career Center a target for budget freezes andreductions. In addition, pressures to become more like business, ad-ministrative demands for accountability, and a variety of quality im-provement programs can also put pressure on Career Centers to iden-tify the value-added by their efforts (Schulz, 1995; Bezanson, 1995).

    Demonstrating the value added to the University or college settingby Career Centers can be perceived a difficult and time-consumingtask. Traditionally, this has been accomplished through the reportingof such numbers as the total recruiters on campus for interviewing,total students participating in recruiting, and the number of studentsreceiving/accepting offers of employment. While this information pro-vides some data to enable the staff to make certain decisions, the com-plexity of tasks required of Career Centers makes this informationinsufficient for present-day decision makers.

    The value of the Career Center lies in its two-fold mission: (1) toassist students in making effective decisions about their major andtheir career path; and (2) to assist students in obtaining appropriateemployment/volunteer activities to enhance their movement towardstheir career goal. From this perspective, more of the activity encom-passed under the Career Center becomes valuable in demonstratingthe value added by the Center. It still remains difficult to documentthis value because it is less clearly identifiable as change. One wayto obtain this needed information is through a needs assessment(Heinzen and Rakes, 1995).

    The words Needs Assessment often strike fear in the hearts ofprofessionals. They envision a huge, overwhelming project that re-quires significant effort and statistical analysis. Often, resulting ininformation that is not seen as helpful. However, a Needs Assess-ment is just a toola flexible tool designed to obtain informationfrom a population (Altschuld and Witkin, 1999). This article will dis-cuss the basics of Needs Assessment projects and a real-world needsassessment project in order to assist you in understanding the utilityof this tool. The article is arranged to allow you to see the flow of aneeds assessment project through the three basic steps to completion.The goal is to increase your knowledge of and comfort with needs as-sessment. In order to achieve this goal, we will focus on an overviewthe Needs Assessment process, the process of conducting a needs as-sessment, and finally, review and discuss an actual needs assessmentproject.

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    Table 1Overview of the Need Assessment Project

    Develop an assessment planidentify goals, target population,information sources, methodology

    Implementationcarry out your assessment plan, analyze/synthesize the data

    Utilizationmake decisions, develop plans, make changes basedupon results

    Overview of the Needs Assessment Process

    The Needs Assessment Process entails three basic steps: (1) plan-ning your Needs Assessment Project, (2) gathering and analyzing thedata, and 3) doing something with the results (see Table 1, Haile,1993). The critical piece to the success of a needs assessment projectis clearly identifying what you want from the needs assessment proj-ect and then asking the questions that will provide this information.

    To develop a needs assessment plan, you identify the goalswhatis it that you want to know or understand better? Is it the studentsexperiences of the center, their understanding of the placement pro-cess, or facultys awareness of how the Career Center can assist them?This helps you to identify the target population(s) and potential infor-mation sources. Your method for gathering information is affected bywho and how large your target population is.

    To implement your plan, you would select the method for gatheringinformation, distribute and collect your data, enter your data, analyzeand synthesize your data. The last phaseutilizationoccurs whenyou make decisions about changes to make, evaluate ways to imple-ment the changes and implement those changes. Phase 3 continuesthrough the evaluation of the changes you implemented. This stepenables you to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes, as well as ofyour needs assessment project.

    Phase I: Planning Your Needs Assessment Project (Table 2)

    In Phase I the critical element is to define your goals. It is importantto clarify the purposes of the needs assessmentthe clearer these are,the easier it will be to implement and analyze the project (McClelland,

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    Table 2Phase I: Assessment Plan

    Goal(s)why should we spend the effort?What benefits do we expect to see from this project?What information do we need?Information sourcesare there other ways to obtain the information

    we seek?Who is the best source for the information we need?

    1992). Once you understand what you need/want from this project, itis time to see if the information is available from another source. Forexample, does Student Services query students about their careerplans, if so, does this information provide the answers to the questionsyou have asked. If you find that you can obtain the information else-where, the need for a needs assessments stops: you have the informa-tion to answer your questions. If there are insufficient sources of infor-mation to answer your questions, you can continue on to develop theneeds assessment (Cline and Seibert, 1993). Who is the best source toprovide the information you are seeking? Options include such groupsas students, faculty, advisors, administrative staff, residence hallsstaff, alumnae, and employers. These are all stakeholders in your Ca-reer Centerespecially the placement function. Also considerwhether it will be most effective and efficient to ask the recipients ofyour services directly (students) or someone with knowledge of theserecipients (faculty, staff, parents, etc.).

    Phase I: Example Project

    Changes in personnel, goals, and structure can greatly affect youroffices functioning, as it did in our real-world example. A needs as-sessment becomes a valuable tool to identify new directions or oppor-tunities. It is also a method for establishing a baseline to measurechange. The example presented in this article is an actual needs as-sessment project implemented by a Career Center from a medium-sized University in the Midwestern U.S. The Career Center at thisUniversity serves only undergraduate students (N = 2,924), and grad-uate students (N = 704) in graduate programs other than law. DuringSummer/Fall 1999, this office experienced a change in approximatelyhalf of the staff, including the transfer of the psychosocial career coun-

  • Marie S. Hammond 191

    seling component from the on-campus Counseling Center to the Ca-reer Services office. The relatively recent arrival of a new Vice Presi-dent for the student services area added to the change, as the CareerCenter staff were given the challenge of creating a world class careercenter." Thus, changes in staff, mission, and structure converged tosuggest the need to measure the current situation. This baseline mea-sure would enable us to (1) monitor the changes, (2) evaluate the effec-tiveness of programmatic changes, and (3) monitor progress towardsmeeting the challenges.

    These changes suggested that, in addition to obtaining informationfrom our students about their view of the office, it would be importantto expand students understanding of the assistance and informationprovided by Career Services. Information desired included methodsfor effective dissemination of information on Career Services activi-ties, types of services desired by students, students preferred methodsfor obtaining career-related information (workshops, groups, orga-nized courses), and topics of interest for workshops and library hold-ings. It was also important for the office to get a feel for the studentsutilization versus their perception of need for various services. Demo-graphic information, but no personally identifying information, wasincluded in order to enable the office to conduct advanced analysis ofthe responses.

    Having identified the two main goals of the survey and the generaltopics, it became possible to identify survey targets. Students, ofcourse, are the initial focus of this survey, but because our goal wasto understand the students attitudes and awareness as clearly as pos-sible, faculty and staff were also viewed as potential sources for feed-back, but to focus first on the students. The decision to survey theentire undergraduate population (N = 2,924) was based upon threefactors: (1) the lack of information on student perceptions of the office,(2) the goal of educating students to the services provided, and (3) theestablishment of a baseline for subsequent evaluations.

    Phase II: Designing your Needs Assessment (Table 3)

    Once you identify the information needed and your target audience,you can move into the design phase. At this point you need to makedecisions regarding sample size and format of the assessment. A thor-ough review of the impact of these two components is beyond the scopeof this article, but can be obtained from articles and texts, such as

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    Table 3Phase II: Assessment

    What is the best way to obtain the information?Design your plan for obtaining the information (depends upon

    method)Develop instrumentation, forms, etc.Plan data analysis methods, develop databases, etc.Disseminate, follow-up, and collect dataEnter and edit dataAnalyze and synthesize data

    those included in the references. Basically, you need to consider thetime and effort involvedthe greater the number of individuals sur-veyed, the more time involved; the more intensive the method, themore time involved. For example, telephone interviews of an entirestudent body would involve significant time and effort on the part ofthe staff related to conducting the calls and necessary call-backs.However, the return rate is highyou can obtain data from a largepercentage of your target population. Whatever your sample size andmethod, your goal is to maximize the response rate (a minimum of35% of your target population) and minimize the amount of staff timeinvolved.

    Typical methods used in conducting needs assessments include sur-veys (paper-and-pencil, mail, phone, and web-based), post-hoc reviewsof archived data, and focus groups. If your purpose is simply to obtaininformation on a specific topic, you may want to use a sample fromyour target population. Conducting a needs assessment on a smallergroup enables you to use more personal methods (phone surveys andfocus groups), which tends to increase the return rate. The larger thegroup, the greater the need to consider the amount of time involvedversus the rate of return. Thus, the larger the sample, the more youare restricted to methods such as reviews of archived data and paper-and-pencil, mail, or web-based surveys. Examples of target popula-tions include captured audiences (required course), mail, focus groups,phone or in-person interviews, or web forms. The method of distribu-tion also needs to be considered. If you utilize telephone interviews,you have one option for distributionthe telephone call. However, ifyou use paper-and-pencil surveys, you must decide the most effectivemethod for distributing and collecting them. This process is eased if

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    you have courses or meetings which require the attendance of largenumbers of students, such as a Freshman Seminar, Senior Collo-quium, or Recital Class. This method may still require a significantamount of time and effort from your staff.

    Following the distribution and gathering of the data, in whateverform it takes, the project will shift into the analysis phase. Data anal-ysis can be as simple or complex as your statistical skills allow. Gener-ally though, the simplerthe better. Much information can be gainedusing frequency counts, histograms, means, medians, and modes. Ifyou choose to become more complex, you can analyze your data by thevarious demographic categoriesgender, college status, ethnicity, etc.While it is possible to analyze your data using sophisticated data anal-ysis programs, you can also use your favorite spreadsheet program.These programs can hold your data, analyze your data, as well asprepare necessary charts, graphs, and tables.

    Phase II: Example Project

    In selecting our distribution methods, we first established severalcriteria: (1) minimize the time involved in distribution and collection,(2) minimize the involvement and/or disruption caused to college staffor class time, and (3) maximize the return rate. A mail survey wouldmost likely produce a low return rate, since we were moving towardsthe end of the semester and course demands were increasing. So, welooked for opportunities to meet with large groups of students. Thiswas possible for the Freshmen in each college, as all colleges have arequired Freshman Seminar course. Similar opportunities with upperclassmen were fewer and were less likely to permit us to obtain surveydata from all of a given group. Give this difficulty, we attempted toutilize the advising process to facilitate contact with upper classmen,based upon feedback that the majority of upperclassmen came in foradvising prior to registering in each of the three colleges.

    With the format, general topics, and distribution system deter-mined, the survey content was established. The surveys were devel-oped, reviewed, and distributed. Response rates from the Freshmenseminar were adequate, with approximately 40% responding. The re-sponse rate from upperclassmen fell below expectations. Explorationof this difficulty with the advising offices revealed the fact that whilemany students came in for advising, they were generally in such arush that the needs assessment forms were not completed. This poseda problem, since the number of surveys returned did not permit us to

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    assume that we were obtaining a representative sample. Thus, a deci-sion had to be madeend the process and analyze the data only forfreshmen, or attempt to contact upperclassmen in a different modal-ity. With recent access to expertise in constructing web forms, andpreliminary information suggesting that students would seek infor-mation on the Internet, it was decided to attempt to gather data usinga web form with email follow-up contact. This process provided halfagain as many responses, as we originally obtained.

    The institution had several data analysis programs available, in-cluding SAS and SPSS. The decision to enter and analyze the datausing Excel was based upon several facts: (1) the amount of data oneach survey was quite extensive, (2) entry errors increase with thelength and amount of data entered in a single field, (3) the data entrystaff were familiar with Excel program, (4) data could be entered ontoworksheets by survey section to increase accuracy, which also in-creases editing efficiency, and (5) data analysis would be limited tothe simple, descriptive statistics. Data from the paper-and-pencilforms was entered and checked to ensure accuracy. If a web form isused, it is important to work with the computer/web design staff tohave the responses dumped into a database. This will reduce errorsin data and eliminate data entry time.

    After data entry, the data from the paper-and-pencil survey wasanalyzed. The analysis consisted of obtaining summary demographicinformation to determine if the sample was representative of the gen-eral student demographics. Representation for the Freshmen respon-dents paralleled the demographics of the Freshmen class as a whole,and was greater than 35% of the class. Data for the upper class stu-dents was approximately 10%, and thus not representative of the up-per class students as a whole. We could use the results from theFreshman to make decisions related to programs specifically targetingFreshmen. Results from data on the Upperclass students had to beviewed with caution. Regardless, this data can still provide a usefulbaseline for future comparisons.

    Once the demographics were examined and further analysis speci-fied, basic tables of means and percentages were created to displaysummaries of responses to the various questions. This data wasgrouped by category, such as workshop topics, library holdings, ser-vices desired, and information transmission methods. This type ofanalysis provides an overall view of the data, large though it mightbe. This analysis also gave us the answers to basic questions abouthours of availability and information transmission modes. The second

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    level of analysis was to analyze the data by its focus: career planningversus job search. This view of the data provides an examination ofthe data with a programmatic focus. Given that students need assis-tance in making career decisions, can we determine an emphasis forimmediate change and improvement? With this view we were ableto compare the demand for library information with computer basedinformation with experiential sources of information. The next stepwould be to analyze the data by demographic category to observe fordifferences and incorporate those differences into the decision makingprocess.

    Phase III: Utilization of the Results (Table 4)

    With data gathered and analyzed, it is time to make decisions andestablish a priority for addressing the needs. Determine which needscan be addressed through education and which need a change of pro-gram or service. After developing potential solutions, re-examine themto determine the potential impact of the solutions as well as theirpotential for accomplishing the desired change. Make adjustments toyour plans as needed.

    This is the step where the work from Phase I pays off. The questionsthat you wanted answered from Phase I form the organizing structurefor your analysis. Once your data is organized based upon which ques-tions it answers, you can begin prioritizing the responses. This processcan be as simple or as complex as you desire. Rank ordering, the ruleof thirds, and paired comparisons are relatively easy ways of sortingthrough the information. Rank ordering is arranging priorities fromthose most frequently to least frequently mentioned. The rule of thirds

    Table 4Phase III: Utilization

    Set priorities on needsConsider alternative solutionsDevelop action plansEvaluate Needs Assessment processCommunicate resultsImplementation of plansEvaluation of changes/new programs

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    is similar to rank ordering except that priorities are broken into threesegmentsthose most frequently, moderately, and least frequentlymentioned. Paired comparisons involve contrasting each priority withall others to establish the most to least important (Altschuld and Wit-kin, 1999). There are additional, but more complex ways of analyzingdata, which may be useful in more sophisticated needs assessmentproject.

    With the answers to your questions prioritized its time to developsolutions. There are a number of ways to develop potential solutions:literature reviews, benchmarking, and networking with others in thefield. Evaluating these solutions can, likewise, be as simple as decid-ing what will work and what wont work, given your situation. Morecomplex methods such as Multi-Attribute Utility Technique are dis-cussed in needs assessment texts such as those mentioned in the ref-erences. Communicating the results in written form is critical in gain-ing support for your changes. It also enables others to betterunderstand your perspective. Evaluating the needs assessment pro-cess assist you in determining the effectiveness of the process andwhether additional efforts are needed to clarify information gatheredduring the needs assessment process (Altshuld and Witkin, 1999).


    The Needs Assessment is a valuable tool for gathering informationfrom a target population. That information is useful in choosing, de-veloping, and improving the programs and services offered by CareerCenters. Needs Assessments are also of assistance in developing thelonger-term goals, objectives and theoretical framework for aligningthe office with the goals, mission, and vision of the institution. (Havi-land and Gohn, 1983). Choose your purpose for conducting the needsassessment and keep it in mind as you complete the three phases dis-cussed in this article. This will increase the likelihood that your proj-ect will be successful, producing the information you desire.

    The key to completing a successful needs assessment project is tokeep it simple. Keeping it simple means focusing on the informationyou need to answer specific questions, presenting the questions in amanner that makes it easy to respond (check marks are wonderful),and establishing a distribution/collection method that facilitates re-sponding by the target population. Then, analyze the data you gatheronly to the point you have answered the questions and present the

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    information in the simplest formats. The foundational purpose of aneeds assessment is to find the answers to questions you havebykeeping your focus on what you want from the needs assessment youkeep yourself focused and on target.


    Altschuld, J. W., & Witkin, B. R. (1999). From Needs Assessment to Action: Transform-ing Needs into Solution Strategies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

    Bezanson, L. (1995). Quality Career Counseling Services. ERIC Document ED414522.Cline, E.B., & Seibert, P.S. (May, 1993). Help for first-time needs assessors. Training &

    Development, 47(5), 99102.Haile, S.L. (1993). A guide to need assessment for career development programs. Colum-

    bia, MO: University of MissouriColumbia. (unpublished manuscript).Haviland, M.G., & Gohn, L.A. (1983). Career Planning Needs of College Students.

    NASPA Journal, 20(4), 2833.Heinzen, C., & Rakes, Thom D. (1995). Enrollment Managment and Career Services:

    Translating concepts into practice. Journal of Career Development, 22(2), 117123.McClelland, S. (1992). A systems approach to needs assessment. Training & Develop-

    ment, 46(8), 5154.Schulz, W.E. (1995). Evaluating Career Counseling Centers: A collaborative approach.

    ERIC Document ED414517.


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