Responsibility of College Payoff: Colleges and Students

We are entering the months of graduation, inspiring speeches and anxious and excited graduates. With college debt exceeding a trillion dollars last month, the cost of college outpacing credit card debt, and the unemployment rate among graduates at a sixty year high, many Americans are asking what this means in the short run and the long run for these students and for our economy.  What we should also be asking is:  a) what responsibility do colleges have in doing a better job of delivering graduates who are both knowledgeable and capable in the professional world; and, b) what responsibility do those graduates have to get a clue before they start college about what the real world expects and demands of graduates?  Let’s look at both of these areas.

Frank Bruni is right, the promise of college in America right now is, indeed, “imperiled”.  However, it is not so much what an undergraduate decides to major in that matters. They could major in music, and if they have strong critical thinking skills, the ability to write, articulate themselves, and take risks to create experiences that are unique to who they are, they will have value in the world of work.  It is the real world experience—through jobs, internships, working hard to overcome obstacles, connecting with students and people different from you,  learning a language, and experiencing a foreign culture—that prepare students most for life outside of college and success in the world of work. But while many colleges have Student Life Divisions, these realities are not made clear to undergraduates as they begin college.

Imagine starting a job with no sense of what is expected of you.  Now, put yourself in the shoes of most undergraduates from community college students to the Ivy Leagues.  Many colleges don’t bother to make the connection the summer before starting college about what the real world expects of graduates and how their college education is connected to their success in both their professional and personal lives. This awareness surely impacts the decision of the lost or even aimless college students as well as those who think they know what they want to do. More colleges need to require entering freshmen to participate in a summer reading program, not about the classics, but about the world they will enter, the global issues that need to be solved, the skills that they will need to learn in college through their experiences outside of class as well as inside and, finally,  how their interests and strengths measure up to careers and fields that interest them. If colleges would do a better job of setting expectations for undergraduates about the real world and how they could use their personal initiative in college to prepare for it, we would have far fewer stressed out and depressed graduates and more who were self-aware, self-prepared, and able to create a challenging and rewarding future for themselves without mom and dad.

For a long time, universities have provided an education emphasizing largely analytical skills.  This is great if you want to be a professor or researcher, but for the vast majority of college students they need both an analytical education in school and a practical education outside of school. Both have to happen simultaneously for a graduate to be successful. Colleges owe the American public this connection because our economic future and our role in the global world depend on it.  Most importantly, grads coming out of college with huge college debt deserve this direct and honest reality as they launch their adult lives.

But it is not only the responsibility of the colleges to make this clear, though they are the entities paid the big bucks by many young, inexperienced students who take out large sums in loans and whose parents aid them while putting their own retirement funds at-risk. Undergraduates, especially entering college freshmen, need to take full responsibility for answering these questions:

1)      How will college be different from high school or the world of work?

2)      How much will I have to study, read, and take notes?

3)      What are the expectations of me freshmen year, and every year thereafter?

4)      How is my college learning related to success in the professional world?

5)      What are my academic, emotional, and social strengths and weaknesses?

6)      Who are the people who can most help me freshmen year?

7)      What are my interests and how do those relate to careers and fields?

8)      What are my internship options during college?  Where can I work each summer to get experience?

9)      When I get ready to interview for a job the end of my senior year, what will I offer a prospective employer?

10)   How will I build the skills now to show what I know and what I know how to do?

Test preparation and getting into college have become billion dollar businesses, but we’ve become so obsessed with getting into college that we’ve failed to spend much time at all thinking about what to do develop yourself for the professional world while you are in college. No matter what Ivy League school you attend, what you do there is still more important than the name of the school.  And while there are many great connections to be made through alumni, no connection counts unless a student actually has the initiative to make the connection, ask the question, and build the relationship. This is just as true at a state school or a community college. My oldest brother, who is a Rhodes Scholar, graduated from the University of Arizona. He was awarded the Rhodes not because of where he went to school, but because of the unique experiences he sought while earning high grades for his “book” learning”.  He worked as an intern at the Wall Street Journal in Philadelphia. Perhaps most remarkable, in the early seventies, he traveled for eight  months through Mexico and South America traveling in train cargo cars, riding on the back of chicken trucks, scaling mountains in the Andes, and meeting the people who revealed their many cultures as only first-hand knowledge can be shared.

College freshmen need to ask themselves how they will develop their unique interests and passions, which requires that they spend some time reflecting on what make them passionate. It takes time and discipline to dig into one’s very soul for these answers and it is much easier to go to the next fraternity party than to sit with these questions. But the students who take the time to consider these deeper questions are the ones who will be Teflon coated in a job situation. The imagination, tenacity and persistence that it takes to explore and define these basic aspects of self is what makes people valuable and effective in the working world.

Let’s demand more of colleges and let’s demand more of entering college freshmen. Our future depends on it.

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