A Brief History of Vocational Guidance & College Career Services
by Barbara Geisler

edited 8/9/09

"A superb academic program which lacks corollary strength in placement can represent institutional failure to the student who does not receive adequate assistance in working out his career plans." Introduction Robbs (1971)


This paper briefly reviews the history of vocational guidance and student personnel movements to see how they have shaped the field we know today as career services. It will examine the effects of the shift of vocational guidance from a traditional responsibility of faculty to its emergence as a distinct function of Career Planning and Placement Services adopted by student personnel specialists. It will identify the social, cultural and economic trends throughout history and their affect on the field since its inception. Finally, it will discuss trends and issues facing College Career Centers today within the framework of history.

The purpose in choosing this topic was to trace the evolution of the field and examine how the vocational services in higher education institutions were affected by different populations of students and events in history. Surprisingly, professionals in the field of college career services today migrate from positions in business and industry with little knowledge of career development history and theory. By examining the natural progression and adaptation of the field over the course of time, we may lay the foundations for solutions for future problems.  

Vocational Guidance Defined

While some inspiration for the field has been thought to have been appreciated in reading Plato's Republic, the origins of vocational guidance have been extremely difficult to trace (Brewer, 1923). The terms career counseling, career development and vocational guidance have distinct meanings that are time and culture specific, with "vocational guidance" being the original term used in the United States (Pope, 2000). Brewer (1923) was one of the first to scrutinize the definition and assumptions that underlie vocational guidance activities:

The common meaning of the two words in the phrase vocational guidance suggests that we are concerned with helping persons to choose, prepare for and make progress in occupations. Such activities as following, then, would be considered as exemplifying vocational guidance: giving information about commerce and industry, in order to help in the choice of occupation or job; giving opportunity to discover talents, with vocational choice in mind; advising pupils to enter this or that school, for the purpose of discovering talents or preparing for an occupation; advising in regard to promotion, change of job, aftereducation, or advanced study; supervising the entrance into or progress in particular positions or chosen occupations (p.1-2).

Origins of Vocational Guidance

The earliest concept of vocational education in colonial colleges was guided by the principle of in loco parentis, whereby higher education institutions believed they had a responsibility to act on behalf of parents for the good of their students (Barr, 1993). This principle was reflected in a highly controlled and captive environment governed by faculty in a quest for developing the moral character of the elite. The heaviest burden for accommodating the college's purpose rested on the shoulders of the president, who typically taught the capstone senior year focusing on moral and intellectual philosophy (Rudolph, 1990). In addition to providing moral guidance, advice and direction, faculty frequently assumed responsibility for assisting male graduates in securing positions in ministry in local churches.

Rudolph (1990) describes professors in these early colleges as dwelling in an ambiguous no-man's land because they were trained as clergyman, but educated in no particular discipline. Occupations other than clergy were generally seen as training that generally followed an apprenticeship model. But, despite the underlying belief that American life would always be characterized by a craft society and apprentice system, a spirit of vocationalism began to permeate institutions of higher education. While the concept of career preparation was not new, it slowly expanded beyond the limits of theology, and later law and medicine.

The difference between the universities of the Jacksonian era and the late 1800's was that emerging interests in becoming merchants, engineers, journalists and musicians were served on equal footing with the three learned professions. The implications pervading the era were that all careers were equal and all careers demanded an equal hearing and equal opportunity within the university (Rudolph, 1990). Eventually, the American institution turned these new vocational interests into professions, thereby eliminating the distinction between the two. American universities began to identify themselves as the appropriate medium of instruction for any careers that embodied a formal body of knowledge.

Vocational Development in Higher Education

The need for vocational guidance in higher education began to develop as increased enrollments affected the diversity of the student population. The alienation between faculty and students and the decreased emphasis on religion resulted in the development of the extracurriculum (Moore, 1980). Monitoring these activities, including fraternities and sororities, athletics, drama, literary societies and student publications became the job of specially appointed "personnel" officers, marking the advent of student affairs. The emergence of the extracurriculum was evidence that undergraduate students had succeeded in upsetting the balance of power in the American college (Rudolph, 1990). This shift in power had peripheral effects on vocational development. Vesey (1965) submits, "in his freedom from faculty, the student was supposed to become a trained expert in some special field" (p. 67).

The increasing attention paid to student's extracurricular life was one of the more important changes throughout the first half of the twentieth century. By the time period surrounding World War I, academic leaders were becoming persuaded that athletics, social clubs, Greek letter societies, theater groups, campus newspapers and magazines were evolving without the benefit of supervision. Such concerns originated the student personnel movement (Rudolph, 1990). Deans of students along with supportive administrative staff became charged with oversight of dormitories, academic and career counseling, extracurricular activities, social events, admissions counseling, scholarships and financial aid. Lucas (1994) proposes that given the increasing size and diversity in the undergraduate populations, the emergence of the extra curriculum support structure was necessary and probably inevitable.

The role of vocational guidance was among many of the traditional responsibilities for students adopted by student personnel specialists as faculty felt more free to pursue research and other entrepreneurial interests. Student affairs professionals generally agree that Oxford's University on Appointments, created in the 1890's, was the precursor of the modern American placement office (Wrenn, 1951). In the United States, the chancellor of the University of Nebraska is credited as creating one of the earliest placement offices. In 1892 he created a committee of faculty responsible for placement services and later employed a permanent staff member in the early 1900's.

Farsighted presidents of major institutions such as Harvard, John Hopkins and Chicago were the first to appoint a full-time professional in charge of students prior to the turn of the century. Yale University also developed an early placement office in 1919 staffed with professionals trained in vocational guidance that advised and counseled students.

The Vocational Movement

Outside of higher education, the industrial revolution changed the concept of work. When the agrarian economy gave way to an industrial economy, work became physically separated by distance and locale from everyday family life. Industries provided large, bureaucratic organizations that grew quickly into hierarchal structures. This hierarchy gave birth to the concept of the corporate "ladder" with an emphasis on individualism, advancement, and competition that contributed to the concept of seeing work as a series of jobs developing into a "career" (Severy, 2002).

In addition to those who lost jobs in the agriculture sector, veterans from World War I needed jobs, as well as those displaced by their return. The social upheaval of lost jobs in the agriculture sector, changing demographics of work and a shift in occupational choice from the family to the individual gave birth to the need for vocational counseling (Severy, 2002).

The significant development in the vocational guidance movement has been credited to Frank Parsons, justly called the founder of the vocational guidance. His work contributed to the founding of the Vocational Bureau in Civic Service House in Boston in 1908, which was later placed under the charge of the Division of Education and Graduate School of Business Administration at Harvard University. In his book, Choosing a Vocation, he stated that "in the choice of a vocation there are three broad factors: a clear understanding of yourself... a knowledge of those requirements and conditions for success... and true reasoning on the relation of these two groups of facts..." (Parsons, 1909, p. 5). Parson's vocational model consisting of the individual, the occupation, and the relationship between them greatly influences procedures used in career counseling today (Moore, 1980).

Human Development and Psychological Testing

Subsequent to the vocational guidance movement initiated by Parsons, more secular influences emerged at the turn of the twentieth century as psychology and sociology became accepted as academic disciplines. During this period, the involvement of psychological testing with career counseling gave the discipline more credibility. Advances in testing and counseling techniques being developed by the Army were soon generalized to college campuses. Surveys similar to the Alpha General Classification test administered to help the Amy determine the leadership and specialty training capabilities of draftees were developed to assess attributes of entering college freshmen. Moore (1980) speculates that vocational guidance might not have weathered the depression years and the tests on the foundations of guidance had it not been for the strong support from other disciplines.

The 1930's saw the development of interest and aptitude measurements. Testing and use of trait-factor psychology gave vocational guidance respectability and credentials. Super (1955) acknowledged, "the union of education, of social work, and of psychometrics in the vocational guidance of youths and adults was now somewhat more complete" (p.4). Unfortunately, setbacks during this period forced institutional cutbacks on expenditures and a return to academic virtues. Placement of graduates required minimal services on the part of instructors due to the poor availability of jobs following Stock Market Crash and the Depression. Employment during this period was lower than at any previous time in US history (Kroll & Rentz, 1996).  

In 1929, the concept of job hunters convening to learn successful techniques and share stories or problems with other job hunters first took shape. The Thursday Night Club, founded in 1933 was the longest running club, operating for a duration of over forty years. It was dedicated to assisting Harvard Business School graduates secure employment (Figler and Bolles, 1999). The organization spurred the development of other job-hunting groups sponsored by university alumni chapters, Chambers of Commerce and service organizations.

Post World War II

The career adjustments faced by the vast number of veterans, including those handicapped during the war, and the influx of new types of students to higher education as a result of the G.I. Bill of Rights were two of the social conditions identified by Schwebal (1984) as characteristic of the period following World War II. Adding to the diversity of students during the post war era were women and minorities enrolling in universities, which created different needs. Women were seeking skills that would equip them to enter the job market, other minorities were seeking upward social mobility, and many white, middle class males were trying update their skills for re-entry into managerial or professional levels of work. The industrial-based economy shifted its focus to the manufacturing of consumer products creating an increased need for engineers, managers, educators and professionals. As a result, employment services witnessed largest expansion phase within its history (Wrenn, 1951).

By the 1950's term counseling psychology came into use with an emphasis on dealing with the person as an individual influenced by environmental factors. John Holland, an Army classification interviewer, first proposed the concept of a person-environment fit and identified six types of people, environments, skills and values which today are called Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional, or RAISEC (Figler and Bolles, 1999).This theory of personality and environment types provided the foundation for his Self Directed Search instrument as well as the Strong Interest Inventory common on many college campuses today. As of January 1, 1999, his Self Directed Search had been used by more than 24,000,000 people (Figler and Bolles, 1999).

Guidance and counseling in higher education increasingly developed as functions peripheral and supplemental to a more highly valued academic process (Moore, 1980). Consumer demands and new technologies created a tremendous need for new employees. As a result, 600 employers had established college-recruiting programs by the early 1950's (Kroll and Rentz, 1996). Federal funding for Vocational Rehabilitation and Educational Counseling Program and the creation of the Veteran's Administration involved 429 institutions of higher education agreeing to provide job- related counseling services and programs for returning veterans re-entering the job market (Kroll & Rentz, 1996). By 1956, at least four student personnel service professionals were represented on every major campus (Moore, 1980).

The 1960's - 1980's

Once established on college campuses, career planning and placement were historically viewed as separate entities, either supervised by different student affairs administrators or located in separate offices. The counseling center was responsible for career planning activities, while the placement office was responsible for the development of skills associated with the job-search process. However, by the late 1960's institutions began to implement an organizational model within student affairs that integrated career planning and placement resources. Some offices even changed their name, symbolizing the increasing popularity of career development and conveying the new importance assigned to career counseling and career planning activities (Knoll & Rentz, 1996).

Also during this era, student activism, the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War had profound affects on students and administrators. There was a new focus on actualizing one's potential that affected attitudes towards education and the role of work. Education and work were viewed as a way of facilitating self-expression and self-fulfillment. Counselors strived to assist in attaining employment that would be an expression of personality and facilitate self-actualization. Career planning emerged as a major developmental process that could guide each person through the stages of education to securing employment.

Student services of the 1970's became defined less by office and more by function (Moore, 1980). As the field continued to evolve, services became more process-oriented. However, this sophistication of function seemed to be at odds with economic conditions. There was a decreased need for on-going campus recruiting because of reduced popularity. Funding of placement activities decreased and economic recession reduced overall operational budgets despite the need for improved services. Figler and Bolles (1999) estimated that only one job offer was presented and accepted for every 1470 resumes sent out by job hunters.

Several global and national trends began affecting career development in the US during the 1980's including workplace restructuring, shifting demographics, rapid technological advancement, an increase in dual-career couples and an increasingly global economy. Definitions of career and career success as well as requirements of those who wanted to remain viable and productive in 21st century changed. There existed a wave of careerism that swept through higher education whereby students shifted from learning for learning's sake to equating a diploma to a ticket to the good life (Knoll and Rentz, 1996).

Generation X: The New Outsiders

Unlike the baby boomers, who, for the most part, now design and provide most of career services, students of the 1990's have unique characteristics specific to their generation (Cannon, 1991). They do not bear an overwhelming resemblance to the generational student stereotypes of either the process-oriented seventies or the fast track, career obsessed eighties. Cannon pinpoints eight characteristics that are "truly representative of'X' factors: 1) need for variety and talks that are real rather than pretend; 2) demand for personal attention; 3) preference for accurate, factual information, promptly delivered; 4) attraction to technology as both source of expertise and means of improving expertise through technological mastery; 5) belief in traditional family goals - once career issues are settled; 6) desire for unique and interesting employment; 7). disdain for emotionalism and 8) aversion to narrow options" (Cannon, 1991 p. 343).

Today's college students are described as being more alike than different, and that once clearly defined boundaries of college men and women, outsiders and rebels are starting to blur (Horowitz, 1987). She further concludes that the sudden and sobering realization of the impact of college on jobs and incomes of contemporary students has long been understood by outsiders (Horowitz, 1987). Today's outsiders are defined as a wide variety of students including part-time commuters, minorities seeking social mobility, or re-entry women seeking credentials. The underprivileged seeking entrance in elite institutions constitutes an even newer, emergent group.

In addition to the changing needs of the students, the importance of career networking has also emerged as the new fundamental reason for existence of career services (Castella, 1990). The career center has been viewed as the major intersection where students, alumni, employers and staff meet to deal with all career matters. Murray (1993) concluded "networking is a fitting centerpiece for a new career services model, but if we want student to see us as key players, we will have to find new ways to help them network" (p.31).

Current Challenges in Career Services

The scientific, predictable approach to career planning of the industrial age served the needs of students well when the nature of work was predictable. As the very nature of work changes, however, these    approaches have become more difficult to adapt (Severy, 2002). The 21st century brought a new set of challenges within the world of work. The United States moved from an industrial economy to an informational economy. The corporate ladder itself has changed with the concept of information as a commodity (Savickas, 1993). Lifelong employment with one particular organization is now uncommon. A more accurate view of the typical career path conceptualizes people as self-employed workers with employers as customers (Savickas, 2000). People shift positions often and make decisions based on how any particular experience will help prepare them for the next. The scientific emphasis on rational-decision making no longer fits today's constantly changing workforce and individual work-role variance (Savickas, 2000).

Murray (1993) concludes that we should abandon the metaphor of career services as a road to success, with the implication that career counselors hold the only map. Instead he recommends portraying career services in terms of bridges or structures that provides passage over obstacles:

Bridges support us as we move from one place to another. They have limited short-term functions. When we travel across them and reach the other side, we have options. Reshaped by experience, we frequently change directions... See structures as bridges -structures that help you move from one place to another, not for life, but for the near future (Murray, 1993, p.28).

As work life becomes more varied and more demanding, people question the artificial split between the work self and the personal self that the industrial revolution brought. Hanson (2000) writes, "New work patterns are emerging with greater recognition being given to the significant connection between families and work. People are seeing an interactive connection of work with other aspects of their lives" (p.1). The scientific and objective career development models have begun to lose their appeal in this rapidly changing, never static workplace.

In the shift from modem to post-modem paradigms, the nature of counseling itself changes from a search for "universal truth" model to a search for "individual meaning model" (Savickas, 2000). Postmodern theory emphasizes perspective over objectivity, a difference that can be quite dramatic to the diverse needs of today's student populations (Severy, 2000). Career service offices using tools such as objective norm-referenced tests often fail to assist those outside the norm group represented (Cochran, 1990). This challenge to standardized, norm-referenced assessments carries particular weight from a multicultural context, which is a particular concern of student personnel officers today.

Other methodologies have been proposed to assist students gain understanding of themselves, others and the world of work. Freeman (1994) urges career professionals to move away from a reactive strategy offering students a quick fix at the end of their education, toward a four- year developmental process model. He proposes developing a new paradigm would enable students to see the transferable essence of their academic experience, conceptualize a broad range of career possibilities, learn how to tap viable and hidden job markets, and engage in new experiences to broaden their horizons and acquire real-world perspectives (Freeman, 1994, p. 72).

Conclusions on History Revisited

It has been almost a century since the inception of a model that matched vocational guidance to the employment needs of individuals entering an industrial society. The matching of persons to positions originated by Frank Parsons in 1909 served the 20th century organization and individuals well in that it fit stable and predictable career paths (Savickas, 1993). Employees worked for only one or two companies within their working life. Guidance counselors learned about typical career paths up the ladder and matched clients with skills and interests suited to those paths. Advisors were able to assess and then find placement for large groups of people quickly with the use of standardized assessments that fit the matching model (Savickas). If the positivist model no longer fits the nature of the world of work, the very nature of vocational guidance must change as well to be useful to college students today (Savickas, 2000).

Some research has indicated that this segregation of student services from the primary academic functions has contributed to an identity crisis among student personnel service officers (Moore, 1980). Student personnel services have never been thoroughly integrated with the three primary functions of teaching, research and service, and therefore have a perception of lesser importance. Moore (1980) speculates that as faculty lost their birthright of supervision of student welfare, some hostility towards career service personnel was created. With respect to career services, this may change as more integrated efforts among faculty, administration and students become necessary to battle challenges in the economy and challenges associated with multiple family roles. Overall, it may be needed to combat issues associated with retention and students' perceptions of alienation. Moore (1980) proposes that cooperation and collaboration is needed to achieve true community spirit among all members of campus as well as to bolster morale of the whole organization.

However, this is not the first time in history where the vocational guidance provided by higher education failed to meet the demands of society. Rudolph (1990) argues the religious orientation of most early American institutions undercut any possibility of a pervading intellectual purpose by focus on piety as opposed to reason. Just as the university movement was responsible for recognizing and nurturing new professional interests that differed greatly from those of ancient learning (Rudolph, 1990), today's ever-changing employment options are not only affecting choices in college offerings, but how we prepare students for careers in those fields.


The research yielded two historical debates whichstill have some relevance today. First, the vast options of vocational education today parallel the conflicting social and political thought that dates back to the Jacksonian era. On one hand, Americans seem to admire the self- made man who had attained positions of prominence, with wealth being the symbol of respectability and achievement. On the other hand, there is a deep-seated distrust of privilege and social inequity of anything resembling elitism. Of similar historical debate are the merits of a liberal education versus a technical education. This debate traces back to Franklin's preference for a pragmatic, utilitarian education versus Jefferson's belief that possessing basic academic skills prepared one for almost any endeavor (Wonacott, 1992).

However, a common thread woven through this historical overview of vocational guidance was the changing needs of both a diverse student population and society, as well as the subsequent evolution of higher education in response to those changes. The responsibility of vocational guidance and placement, once embodied in the faculty governed by the doctrine of in loco parentis, has become secondary to academic interests at the post secondary level, yet continues to be essential in meeting the demands of today's college students. The changing models of career services to meet student-driven needs marks the student influence in the balance of power in the institution, not entirely unlike that seen throughout the history of the American University.  


Barr, M.J. & Associates (1993). The handbook of student affairs administration. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers.

Brewer, J.M. (1923). History of vocational guidance: Origins and early development. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Cannon, D. (1991). The way they do the things they do. Journal of Career Planning and Employment, 51(2), 343-38.

Casella, (1990). Career networking: The newest career center paradigm. Journal of Career Planning and Employment 50 (3), 33-39.

Cochran, L.R. (1997). Career counseling: A narrative approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Figler, H. & Bolles, R.N. (1999). The career counselor's handbook. Berkely: Ten Speed Press.

Freeman, J. (1994). A vision for college placement center systems, paradigms, processes, people. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Hansen, S. (2000, December). Preparing counselors for career development in the new millennium. Association of Counselor Educators and Supervisors & National Career Development Association (Position Paper) [On-line]. Available at http//www.. ncda.org/pdfCommissionlPaper.pdf.

Herr, E.L. (1987). Education as preparation from work: Contributions of career education and vocational education. Journal of Career Development 13, (3), 16-30, EJ 353 450.

Horowitz, H. L. (1987). Campus life: Undergraduate cultures from the end of the eighteenth century to the present. Chicago:The University of Chicago Press.

Kroll, J. and Rentz, A.L. (1996). Student affairs practice in higher education. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishers.

Lucas, C. (1994). American higher education. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Moore, C.A (1980). An overview of vocational guidance and student personnel work. ERIC Clearinghouse (ED 241 884).

Murray, N. (1993). Bridge for the X's: A new career services model. Journal of Career Planning and Employment 53 (3), 28-35.

Parsons, F. (1909). Choosing a vocation. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers.

Pope, M (2000). A brief history of career counseling in the United States. The Career Development Quarterly, 48 (3), 194-211.

Robbs, F.C. (1971). The Three P's: Preparation, placement performance. Journal of College Placement, 31(31). Savickas, M.L. (1993). Career counseling in the postmodern era Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy: An International Quarterly, 7 (3), 205-215.

Savickas, M. L. (2000). Renovating the psychology of careers for the 21st century. In A. Collin & R.A. Young (Eds.), The future career (181-186). Cambridge: United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Schwebel, M. (1984). From past to present: Counseling psychology's socially prescribed role. In Whitley, J.M, Kagan, N., Harmon, B.R., Fretz, & Tanney, F. (Eds.), The coming decade in counseling psychology (25-49). Schenectady, NY: Character Research.

Severy, L. (2002). What's the story: Postmodern career counseling in student affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 43, (1), 84-92.

Super, D.E. (1955). Transition: From vocational guidance to counseling psychology. Journal of Counseling Psychology, (2), 3-9.

Vesey, L.R. (1965). The emergence of the American institution. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Wonacott, M.E. (1992). Career education and applied academics. Columbus: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education (ED 350488).

Wrenn, C.G. (1951). Student personnel work in college. New York: Ronald.