Nowadays, most college students are so busy attending classes and working full or part-time, that they are not always thinking about life after college. They are caught up in getting to their jobs on time; the research paper that’s due next week; the exam tomorrow. In fact, ask most college students what they plan to do when they graduate, and they say, “Get a good job in business/medicine/health care/technology/finance.” Ask them what they want to do, and they are not sure; they need to figure it out.
There seems to be a false assumption amongst students that once they graduate from college, they will suddenly know what they want to do, and that relevant jobs will magically appear. Although studies conclude that college grads earn more over their lifetimes than high school grads, it’s not as simple as that. According to a report published by Inside Higher Ed, only 54% of the graduating class of 2015 found full-time employment, while 10% found work as part-time employees, freelancers, entrepreneurs, etc. While 54% is relatively high, after four+ years of study, it doesn’t seem high enough. How or why are college students falling through the cracks?
Life after college
With college graduation over, the next education begins, in the form of navigating various industries, job functions, and then creating relevant resumes, writing cover letters, applying for jobs, and preparing for and getting interviews. Not to mention negotiating job offers, and then acclimating to the world of work. Classrooms and office environments are not similar; it takes some adjusting for college students to realize that they don’t have a syllabus to refer to, and that they can’t get away with being late or missing days! The transition from who cares about this part-time college job to I really care about this job can be jolting to twenty-somethings.
Then there’s the skill factor. According to a survey by CareerBuilder, 24% of employers do not feel that academic institutions are adequately preparing students for roles needed within their organizations. This shouldn’t be shocking if you consider that the typical college curriculum lacks career-relevant skill preparation. The CareerBuilder survey revealed that 47% of employers said too much emphasis is put on book learning versus real-world learning. It’s also worth considering that the majority of professors’ careers start and end in the classroom. They may not be equipped with the knowledge or experience to prep students for entry into various careers. Sure, many schools possess career offices, but I’ve yet to meet more than one in twenty students who frequent the career center for help.
Persistence and commitment play a role, too. Some students are discouraged after applying for jobs and not receiving any responses, or being bypassed for a role after interviewing. The truth is that it may take anywhere from one to five or more months for recent college graduates to land in a full-time role, so focus and determination are critical. The ability to learn from rejection and remain open minded and positive is key. Are professors teaching students these valuable life skills during their college career? From my experience, all too often students struggling in a course are told by professors to “drop the course.” Sure, it’s a simple solution and an easy way to bypass a failing grade, but does it teach the grit or drive students will need later in life?
The college conundrum
Whether it’s a lack of urgency on the part of students, a lack of available career education, or a lack of time, the situation is real. College students are graduating from college unprepared for careers. If we are encouraging students to devote four or more years of learning in college, charging them a heck of a lot of money for degrees, we should be proactive when it comes to equipping them for careers.
Freshman year, a student may feel as if she or he has tons of time. The same holds true for sophomore year for many. I’ve encountered countless students who have changed majors more than once in college. I think it’s fine to re-route, but I also think spending some time educating oneself before entering college is critical. No, students are not expected to have their lives figured out at 18, but they can know what interests them, what various careers are all about, and a few possible educational paths to pursue. Students can know what they excel in to date, and what they enjoy learning. They can do their own exploration by reading up about careers, obtaining informational interviews, and relevant internships. They can seek mentors with whom they can discuss their aspirations.
Yes, I believe everyone should read Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales, but I am also a realist. Our job as educators, from my point of view, is to teach students to be lifelong learners. To help them to fall in love with learning, so that if for some odd chance they don’t get to study Chaucer in high school or college, they can choose to enjoy the author’s work later in their lives, when they are secure in careers that challenge and empower them.
I believe that career education has to occur during class time, and that it holds just as much importance as learning grammar, reading great books, and studying calculus. Every class on every college curriculum should find some focus in the real-world, and if it doesn’t, we need to evaluate how it’s benefiting students. Writing research papers that delve into the metaphysical conceit in John Donne’s poem, “The Flea,” is great, but perhaps only relevant for students who desire to work within in the literary field.
I believe in real-world learning. As a writing professor, I inspire students to write blogs. To communicate their thoughts and feelings in an articulate and intelligent manner. Sure, in my classes we work on research papers, but students choose their topics and are encouraged to select subjects that relate to the world we are living in. They get to be reporters covering a story or trend, exploring ideas and research, and conducting interviews with experts, surveys via Survey Monkey, and sometimes posting their own self-made surveys on social media for input. I aim to make writing relevant by teaching students that it enables them to explore topics they are interested in, and thus gain clarity on how their views intersect with world views.
I am also a believer that writing resumes, cover letters, creating LinkedIn profiles, and the like, should be part of every student’s classroom learning. In a classroom setting students get to ask questions about these documents, gather feedback, and share them with peers for input. Each semester, I introduce freshmen through seniors to LinkedIn only to get asked: “How come no one ever told us about this?” When I show them how to navigate the hundreds of local entry-level jobs or internships via LinkedIn, they are often bewildered at the endless opportunities around town.
It takes time, energy, passion, determination, grit, and a willingness to go the extra mile to graduate college. It takes that same drive and perseverance to unearth a career that excites, inspires, and empowers one to keep learning, to keep going, to keep pushing. Let’s find a way to make the years students spend in classrooms count, and help them to learn skills—persistence, self-direction, risk-taking, tolerance of ambiguity—that will inspire them to be lifelong learners pursuing successful careers.