Job Readiness Must Be Central to Our Mission

June 27, 2018 - by Buck Goldstein

The debate over whether a college education is worth it continues and for good reason. Even though, college graduates earn roughly double the amount of those without a degree, the calculation is more complex especially for students of modest backgrounds looking to college as an entry to the middle class. For them, the first rule of thumb should be to finish on time and with a modest amount of debt. Starting but not finishing is often worse than not going at all and assuming a large debt burden in exchange for an undergraduate degree is seldom a good idea. But there is a third part of the equation that most colleges do not adequately address—a good job upon graduation.

In the old days, a college education consisted almost exclusively of a four-year residential experience culminating in either a modestly paying entry level job or graduate school. The idea was to get your foot in the door, even if that meant working in the mail room, and work your way up. Those days are over. Students, on average are older, twenty-eight percent of them have children and 60 percent live off campus. Almost two-thirds work full or part time and over a third attend school part time. Over 70% assume some amount of debt to attend college. Although students presumably expect their college degree to have a host of secondary benefits that will ultimately contribute to a meaningful life, upon graduation the typical college student needs not just a job but a good job. If college results in in a job that does not even require a college degree, it is hard to justify the time and money such a degree entails.

This is not to say that job readiness should come at the expense of a broad-based education anchored in the arts and sciences. Such an education is what the American system is best known for and it is the envy of the rest of the world. Rather, a traditional liberal education must be supplemented with a set of skills and experiences that equip a graduate to successfully enter the work world. An English major who interned at a high-tech start-up and also had a mentor and some instruction in job interviewing is well equipped to land a first job. If this student comes from an upper middle class family, all of this can be accomplished without help from college. Parents and their friends can help with internships and mentoring and interviewing skills get taught around the dining room table. This is not the case for what is, or will soon become, the typical college student. For them, financial aid is required to undertake an internship. They also need a mentor that looks like them, advise and practice on interviewing and perhaps some help putting together an appropriate wardrobe. Job readiness needs to be part of the culture from the day a student steps on campus and it needs to be seen as important and not a necessary evil.

Academia has embraced with open arms efforts to attract students from diverse backgrounds and we delight in stories of higher education leading to a better life for students of modest means. Increasingly, schools are taking seriously the challenge of helping students finish their degree on time. Job readiness is the last frontier. Unlike issues of accessibility and timely completion, attacking job readiness requires cultural change. Academics are often ill equipped to help students get a job and may also believe that such an activity is inappropriate for an academic institution. Including non-traditional academics on the faculty is also a challenge both culturally and administratively as they don’t fit neatly into traditional academic boxes. However, if American higher education is to persuasively answer the question “Is it worth it?” we must embrace job readiness as central to our mission and not a necessary evil.


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