Almost 21 million people attend some variation of a college or university in the United States. For some, the purpose is obvious – to improve their skills, increase their wages, and enhance their marketability in the workforce. But for many – especially those in the traditional 18-22 year cohort – the reasons may not be as clear.
For many of these young students, the goal was to get into college. Most residential liberal arts campuses provide an often bewildering set of opportunities to explore, try out new things, and form or challenge personal assumptions.
Colleges create the opportunity for students to imagine a future — one of the best justifications for the value of a college degree.
In American society, college is the best and sometimes last opportunity for a student to grow within a carefully prescribed set of protected parameters. It can be an idyllic moment when friendships form and core beliefs take hold, free from many of the pressures that will beset new graduates after they enter the job market.
College is also a perfect moment for a student to postpone the future, especially for those who may not have figured their future path. It’s further complicated by the nature of the workforce into which they will enter. College graduates seldom transition into a first job that they will hold until retirement. There’s little chance for a seamless pathway to emerge, no matter how much introspection and reflection occurs in the quiet moments of college life. The global job market changes too rapidly.
In fact, it’s better to prepare generally – acquiring skills that liberal arts training provides – including the ability to speak well, write, apply quantitative methods, use technology, and work in a collaborative setting – than to assume that more narrow training will open the first doors to productive employment. But this reality does not mean that students can hide their head in their books, extracurricular activities, and friendships.
Post-Graduation Outcomes are Where Rubber Meets the Road for Colleges
This is where the rubber meets the road. Colleges do a wonderful job at inputs, likely because inputs prepare students for a successful classroom experience. They are also improving their assessment capabilities, often because of pressure from discipline-based and regional accrediting associations. But they are weakest at outputs – the kind that prepare students to enter the workplace successfully.
Many colleges tout their graduation placement records. They eloquently promote the percentage of their students who find employment and take advanced degree training within six months after graduation.
Graduate placement stats are a good indication of success but imperfect at best. Colleges with professional degree programs like business, engineering, and nursing will logically have higher placement rates because the market aggressively seeks those graduates. Other strong “pre” professional schools that prepare students for advanced degrees in law, medicine, dentistry, and graduate programs like health sciences and public policy may also expect higher levels of placement.
There are two problems with using graduate placement as measurement of success.
The first is that a college or university normally gears its career center toward programs that support employable majors. While there are exceptions, it’s hard to find a college career center that supports humanities majors as strongly as it assists the engineering and business students. Second, the students are not motivated – especially self-motivated – to use college resources wisely or prepare for life after college.
Students Must Take Responsibility for Future Before Graduation
And that may be the next lesson for colleges to learn. Students – soon to be alumni and graduates – must take some responsibility for their own futures. While colleges can provide better tools for graduates in all majors to succeed in their employment searches, the student must also be encouraged to use the four years wisely. It’s imperative in a global market that students prepare for what’s coming.
It begins by encouraging colleges and universities to be more intentional about their student life programs:
- What does an institution hope to teach in the thousand teachable moments that occur outside the classroom?
- Does it offer a residential life program beyond the classroom and laboratory experience that introduces students to communal living and then encourages progressive choices in a controlled experience to prepare them for independent living?
Students Must Be Thoughtful Advocates for Their Own Futures
Further, should students also be as intentional about their college extracurricular experiences as they are presumably about their academic careers? Some students will have the luxury to seek unpaid internships, externships, and summer employment that prepare them for work after graduation. Others need to work when they are not in school to pay their tuition and living expenses, beyond grants and loans.
Whatever the situation, students can develop an individually tailored strategy that introduces them to the workforce, even if it means only on a volunteer basis.
For students of limited means, having to work can differentiate them from their more fortunate peers as individuals better equipped to be successful after graduation.
Whatever the circumstances, students must learn to use the resources available to them. They cannot put off their future nor be overwhelmed by the challenges it takes to make a healthy career happen. It begins with a thoughtful self-examination and ends with the recognition that they may ultimately be their own best advocates.
Many of us have long been proponents of “laboratory” initiatives in the humanities, social sciences, professional and graduate programs that translate academic learning into real world experience.
These initiatives serve a variety of purposes. They make critical inquiry more pragmatic. Most colleges and universities build their academic program on the traditions of the liberal arts. It’s an education that provides a broad and encompassing view of the world. The best liberal arts programs teach students to think not by memorizing but by better integrating what they learn into a comprehensive understanding of an issue. They graduate with an ability to write, articulate their positions, apply quantitative methods, use technology, and work in a collaborative setting.
As an employer, would you rather have an engineer trained in the liberal arts or one trained more narrowly as an engineer without these additional skills?
Arguably, both have similar technical skill sets. But in the first case, the liberal arts engineer also enters the workforce with a capacity to move beyond the narrow technical training to contribute earlier and more meaningfully to his employer. Put in other terms, an engineer trained in the liberal arts is the more logical hire, if the quality of the engineering training is roughly equivalent.
In a sense, it’s the softness of traditional arguments supporting the liberal arts that obfuscates the case for an educational foundation based upon the liberal arts, in whatever field.
The historic argument – which I continue to believe and advocate as a former college and university president – is that the liberal arts create both educated citizens and train graduates for life.
It’s a good political argument but insufficiently pragmatic to address the needs of prospective applicants and their future employers.
College Career Services Are Changing to Meet Marketplace Demands
Market demands change with new workforce demands each day. To offset this shift, colleges and universities have enhanced their liberal arts foundation by expanding the scope and range of their career counseling centers. For undergraduates, they offer more robust internships and externships, technical help in application writing, and increased connections to alumni and parents who are in a position to assist them with employment.
The better career centers also move beyond the “easy sell” degrees like business, management, and engineering. They invigorate the job market prospects for humanists, social scientists, and others for whom career centers are insufficient counselors.
Filling Gaps in Pathway from College to Employment
Yet there is an important gap in creating a seamless pathway between education and employment. Some students need to fill in their time outside the classroom with completing their academic projects. Others must work to meet expenses – especially independent adult students who often have outside responsibilities that place additional pressure on them. The result is that many students have limited ability to access some of the newer “real world” initiatives; despite the broadening effect these experiences have to improve their entry into the labor market.
Northeastern’s Experiential Network: Short-Term, Real Life Collaborations
To answer this problem, Northeastern University in Boston created the Experiential Network (XN). In this program, graduate and professional students work virtually with a sponsoring business or non-profit organization on a short-term project over a six-week period. Students and sponsors work closely to produce deliverables for their employers to inform critical business decisions.
Dr. Charles Kilfoye, senior director of XN, reports: “Employers believe that there is a skills gap in which students must be acculturated to the shifting demands of the job market.” He argues that many adult learners cannot devote more time or interrupt their full-time work schedules to participate in other Northeastern offerings like the co-op program, so they benefit enormously from these more flexible, limited term collaborations.
There are numerous advantages for students who participate:
- The XN Network allows students to apply classroom theory to practice in a collaborative setting.
- As part of the selection process, students grow their professional networks since they choose where they will interview and work. Each student gets between three and five matches from which to choose.
- For many employers, these graduate and professional students often demonstrate maturity that more traditional undergraduates lack.
These projects also align with an academic course, worked through Northeastern’s XN offices. Their students devote about 35 hours over the six weeks to their project. Dr. Kilfoye suggests that Northeastern anticipates market trends and effectively “‘future proofs’ its students by keeping pace with what’s happening in the broader world.”
To ensure success, each project has formative and summative surveys as well as a mid-term review. Students are placed in a wide range of venues that also allows them to think more broadly about how their degrees relate to the shifting demands of the job market.
Student Rupali Agrawal, a graduate student earning an MS in Project Management, said of his XN experience:
“Being a full-time student and executing an XN project takes you out of your comfort zone, and gives you the opportunity to learn professional skill sets. It prepared me to face professional responsibilities.
Learning professional communication etiquette through my Experiential Network project was one of the most valuable things I learned. As an international student, the way we communicate in my country is different from communication here in the United States. Being able to learn these skills before entering the professional world is very valuable.
The beauty of doing an XN project is that it’s an opportunity for students to get practical work experience, delivered right to students.”
In an op ed in the New York Times last month, Ford Foundation president, Darren Walker, speaks to the value of college internships. Walker noted the personal impact: “As a low-income kid from a small town who entered college without an extended network, my internships equipped me with the skills, confidence and relationships to channel my potential into a rewarding career.”
Mr. Walker offers a blunt assessment of internships: “Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.” He suggests that those who want to improve growing levels of inequality “actually – and often unconsciously – reinforce the dynamics that create inequality in their own lives.”
His solution is to offer paid internships, with the government stepping in to compensate interns in work settings like the nonprofit community for those students who do not have other established networks to support them. Mr. Walker provides examples of federal programs that could be used to “facilitate internship grants for low-income students.” He notes further that among the criteria in internship selection used by the Ford Foundation is the requirement that interns must be the recipients of need-based financial aid.
It’s an intriguing idea, especially given the overwhelming statistical evidence of long-term income stagnation leading to deepening economic stratification. Increasingly, the polls suggest that income inequality is the dominant concern among Americans and partly responsible for the rising tension and political chasm that exist among American voters in a very uncertain political season.
What hits home in Mr. Walker’s op ed is an even broader problem. America’s colleges and universities are failing to play as large a role as they could to build a productive workforce of liberally educated Americans. Internship programs offer a splendid opportunity to bridge gaps between what a college education offers and what a workforce needs.
Mr. Walker is right to suggest that current internship programs that often rely heavily on alumni and parent networks reinforce older practices favoring the privileged few among students. Who you know matters with many of these internships, with an often disproportionate number of internships occurring in areas like management, finance, communication, and engineering.
Mr. Walker’s comments provide an opportunity to speculate on how and why internship programs might be strengthened at the institutional level.
Here are a few suggestions:
- College career counseling offices, where many internship programs are housed, must receive more attention from senior higher education administrators and faculty;
- These offices should broaden their internships to include not only professional programs in which employers value internships as early employment screenings but also programs in the humanities, arts, and social sciences to provide a more comprehensive array of internships;
- College strategic plans must emphasize the tactical value of internships, linking career counseling at a minimum to alumni, development, and enrollment efforts to differentiate their academic programs from their peers;
- Internships provide both cash and in-kind potential for fundraisers seeking to link the giving passion of donors to the practical need to place liberally trained college graduates into the global workforce;
- Internships offer an opportunity to define an academic major by providing practical experience as a value added that increases student employment potential in weaker employment fields; and
- Internship placements likely also translate into higher retention and graduation rates and promote the value of a four-year degree to transfer applicants.
The Ford Foundation’s concentration of need-based financial aid recipients in their internship screening is admirable. It is a critical component within a more comprehensive institutional program that should receive special emphasis. Yet for colleges and universities, it is important to look at the full complement of students to be certain that a broad range of internships are generally available.
This presumes, of course, that career counseling offices maintain strict control over their programs to ensure that internships reach the best qualified and best prepared rather than reinforce class and cultural stereotypes. How the program is managed is key to whether colleges actively step in to address basic inequalities.
There is a strong additional message in Mr. Walker’s comments that state and federal officials must consider. Many of the “flipping McDonald’s hamburgers” complaints about recent college graduates confuse the real problem.
America must provide clearer and more explicit links between what students learn and how they transition into the global workforce. Mr. Walker’s call for federally-financed internships could provide such a link.
Let’s hope that states and the new federal leadership see the value in such a strategy as among a number of innovative pilot efforts to better secure a trained workforce of liberally educated employees. It’s time to look for creative ways to bring colleges and the government together as partners to work on solutions on which we can agree.