Colleges' Role Shouldn't End at Graduation

September 09, 2013

The sun is beginning to set as the train rolls through the mostly shuttered steel yards of Gary, Ind., on its way to Pittsburgh.

Sitting in a chartered 1950s-era dining car under a glass-enclosed rooftop observation deck, one of the two dozen young entrepreneurs aboard calls out to his seatmates that they are passing through what was once, well before any of them were born, the epicenter of the American steel industry. The other passengers give a passing glance at the artifact of their grandparents' time before turning back to listen to the evening's guest speaker, the author and journalist Michael Oreskes, who is talking about the challenges facing their generation, the so-called Millennials.

This is Day 8 of the Millennial Trains Project, a cross-country rail trip of inward and outward discovery for these twenty-somethings (average age 25), each of whom pitched a social-good project and raised $5,000 to join the trek. By day, they stop in cities along the way—Denver, Omaha, and Chicago, among others—to work on their projects and meet with local entrepreneurs. By night they learn from guest lecturers about entrepreneurship, the media, and leadership.

As darkness envelops the farmlands of Indiana, the discussion turns to the future of higher education. Most in the group are recent college graduates, and several of them describe to me their futile efforts to find meaningful work or make ends meet, especially with student loans looming large. For many of them, these nighttime "salons" onboard historic passenger cars connected to Amtrak trains provide what they miss most about undergraduate life: an intellectual discussion among students with diverse expertise, connecting classroom learning to real-world problems.

In the real world, these recent college graduates are either struggling to land work, or when they do, to find their curiosity stoked or to grow professionally in jobs that didn't require a bachelor's degree in their parent's generation but do now.

If you belong to an older generation, like me, you're probably already grumbling about "kids these days" and repeating a common refrain about Millennials: They are lazy and entitled. While those vast generalizations certainly describe many of today's college students, research supports the perception that Millennial graduates are indeed struggling: Getting traction into a career is more difficult than ever before, and the transition to higher earnings is longer.

Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, is studying this phenomenon, and he has found, in research to be released this fall, that many college graduates don't reach financial independence until their early 30s, after going through a new phase in the life cycle of Americans that has pushed the progression of careers and earnings to the right on the age continuum.

Despite this trend, many colleges continue to think that the bulk of their work is focused on just one moment in their students' lives, typically starting when they are 18 years old and ending when they are 22. During that time, institutions still treat them as they always have, welcoming them for orientation and wishing them well at commencement and saying, "Our work is done."

But we're living longer now and leaving adolescence later, so we need to build a new transition period after college.

What might this transition period include?

Unless they plan to go directly to graduate school, recent graduates need more exposure to the real world of work, short-term opportunities to exercise their knowledge and talents and explore their interests before going on the job market. Some get that through internships or attend the few colleges, such as Northeastern University or Drexel University, where cooperative-education programs place students in jobs as part of the formal curriculum. But more colleges need to create additional pathways to the workplace, modeled on apprenticeships or programs like Teach for America, the National College Advising Corps, and Venture for America, which place recent college graduates in schools or start-ups for a couple of years as a bridge to a career.

The continuing debate over whether the purpose of college is to provide vocational skills or liberal-arts learning often means students get too much of one or not enough of the other, depending on where they went to college. During this postgraduate transition period, colleges could offer additional coursework or professional-development programs, in person or online, in life skills (such as personal finance management) and soft skills (communications and conflict resolution), as well as mentoring by faculty members in career development.

Colleges could offer their recent graduates opportunities to study or work in internships abroad. Employers say they value a global perspective in job applicants, yet only 9 percent of American undergraduates studied overseas in 2010-11, according to the Institute of International Education. There are many reasons why more students don't go abroad, but a crowded undergraduate curriculum and extracurricular schedule cannot be among them if students have already graduated.

Of course, at a time when rising college prices are straining family budgets and are a focus of politicians, the question will be whether such postcollege experiences are reserved only for the wealthy, and if not, how institutions, or more likely their graduates, will pay for them.

One potential solution is for colleges to rethink the basic concept of the bachelor's degree by adopting a two- or three-year program, with the postgraduate experience taking the place of the fourth year. Under such a scenario, students might pay less in tuition for their undergraduate education, but then pay annual subscription fees to the college through their 20s, spreading out the cost of these programs.

What's more, it is likely that with postgraduate support, more students might delay or forgo graduate and professional school, putting off the debt that comes with that decision as well.

Late last month, as President Obama unveiled his college-affordability plan, he focused on a new rating system for colleges, using measures of access, affordability, and student outcomes, that would empower consumers and allow the federal government to allocate aid to students based on those colleges that do well (and punish those that don't).

Underlying his proposals was a call for colleges to prove their value in an era of lagging family income and constrained state and federal financial resources. For the two dozen Millennial Train participants, a week on the rails turned out to be a valuable learning experience, but one unconnected to any of their college careers.

It seems clear that their generation, for whatever reasons, needs a longer transition to a meaningful workplace than most colleges now provide. These graduates, needless to say, do not aspire to the likes of the steel mills of Gary, Ind., which form a fading tableau on the passing landscape. They, and their peers across the country, expect more—and it is increasingly the responsibility of the 21st-century college to offer it to them.

Jeffrey Selingo is editor at large of The Chronicle and author of College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students (New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).