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From: Scott Carlson
Subject: Graduates Are Told They Can Do Anything With Their Degrees. Is That Why They Feel Lost?
I’m not Goldie Blumenstyk. I’m Scott Carlson, also a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. While Goldie frequently has her sights on innovation in education, I am frequently thinking about the value and return on investment in higher education. Goldie asked me to pick up her Re:Learning column this week, and it’s going to give me an opportunity to muse about how college degrees set up (or fail to set up) a person for a career. So subscribe to
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I’m not Goldie Blumenstyk. I’m Scott Carlson, also a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. While Goldie frequently has her sights on innovation in education, I am frequently thinking about the value and return on investment in higher education. Goldie asked me to pick up her Re:Learning column this week, and it’s going to give me an opportunity to muse about how college degrees set up (or fail to set up) a person for a career. So subscribe to Goldie’s newsletter here. And here’s what’s on my mind this week:
Credentials and potentials.
Over the past two years, I slowly formed a friendship — more like a mentorship — with a young man who stocks the shelves at a local grocery store. I’ll call him Mike; he asked me not to use his real name. On runs for organic dried kidney beans and raw honey, I would see him replenishing the carrots or the kale, and we would chat about our mutual interests in local agriculture or eco-friendly building.
Tall, with long black hair pulled into a ponytail, Mike would ask about my travels for The Chronicle, as he rarely got away from his job. He said he needed advice about how to start a career — or, at an even more basic level, how to figure out what to do with his life. We set a date to meet for a beer and talk it over.
What Mike told me that night in the bar contradicted the assumptions I’d had about him: He was not some kid who had flunked out in high school or floundered at a no-name state college. He was in his late 20s and had graduated from Wake Forest University with a degree in history. He had even gotten pretty good grades. He was the son of a lawyer and had no debt.
Essentially, he could do anything. Yet he felt lost.
Some of Mike’s challenges come from his own attitudes and background. He says his father, although a lawyer, is not particularly well connected, and he’s reluctant to take a job that defies his commitments to environmentalism and sustainability. Surely, part of his problem is the “paradox of choice” that might haunt people from privileged backgrounds: “You can do anything” can be paralyzing when you don’t have a clue where to start.
Unfortunately, for many students, the march toward high-school diplomas and college degrees doesn’t include a lot of time for reflection, technical training, or practical experience in a career. And many colleges don’t methodically connect students to alumni or local professionals who can outline what a student can expect from a profession, or how to get started. Many administrators also note that students today are less likely to have worked in high school, opting instead to concentrate on homework and activities to pad their college applications.
In the years since Mike left Wake Forest, the university has been lauded for its work in career counseling, with its vice president for innovation and career development, Andy Chan, becoming something of a rock star among colleges’ career counselors. Many other colleges are making similar efforts to blend a liberal-arts education with practical or technical skills — considered a killer combination in the job market today.
Trinity College, in Connecticut, recently formed a partnership with Infosys, an information-technology and consulting company, to establish an “Applied Learning Initiative,” providing liberal-arts students with a chance to gain (optional and noncredit) experience in technology and business. Sonia Cardenas, Trinity’s dean of academic affairs and strategic initiatives, says the partnership stemmed from a new strategy at Infosys to more intentionally hire liberal-arts majors.
Optional skills on the technical side
“We’re not changing anything about their core education,” says Cardenas. “But this is going to give them — we hope — optional skills on the technical side that we don’t think liberal-arts colleges are offering.”
The stakes for a path to that first job are high — both for students and for colleges that are trying to prove their long-term value. Recently, the Strada Institute for the Future of Work and Burning Glass Technologies issued a report about “underemployed” graduates, noting that young people who wind up in jobs that don’t require a college degree (barista, waitress, or grocery-store stock boy) are more likely to remain underemployed for life.
Mike says his liberal-arts training, which got him turned on to books and libraries, and gave him time to think about deep questions, was the greatest gift of his college education. But his friends in college, many of whom were wealthy, partied a lot, in part because they thought they’d be stuck in a cubicle after college.
“That college is supposed to be ‘the best four years of your life’ weighed on me,” he says. “It’s like a country club there. The lawn is mowed every day. There’s no trash. That’s evidence of how far it is from reality.”
Now he’s living reality, looking for a new path forward, but he notes that life after college has taken some adjustment. Recently, Mike was complaining about his job to his older brother, who works with him at the grocery store.
“This is ridiculous,” Mike recalls telling him. “I went to Wake Forest. I don’t deserve this.”
His brother said that Mike couldn’t fall back on some elitist background, that it didn’t matter where he had gone to college. People have to make their own way. “You don’t deserve anything,” Mike’s brother said.
His brother should know something about that journey. He went to Stanford.