Years ago, colleges were seen as institutions of higher learning; you attended because of the academics. Today, because of the cost of a college education, students view a degree as a transaction. That expensive degree should net you a good paying job after graduation. If higher education expects students to shell out the big bucks for the degrees, they need to focus on connecting their academic programs to employment prospects. Education for education’s sake is no longer enough.

Jeff Selingo, in a Huffington Post article, “Why Can’t We Educate for a Job and an Education?” summarizes the problem:

We often talk about the goal of college as learning a specific skill or growing intellectually. Both aims are not mutually exclusive, of course, although by framing it as an either/or question we have allowed two opposing camps to emerge. On one side is higher ed, which believes it’s educating future citizens by helping them grow personally and intellectually. On the other side are employers who have jobs they can’t fill because they’re unable to find skilled workers.

It’s clear, however, that there is a disconnect. The unemployed graduates will tell you the degree hasn’t improved their job prospects. Those employed in minimum wage jobs feel defeated and disillusioned.

Is the problem with the chosen major?

One theory is that students are pursuing the wrong majors. The governor of Florida recently enraged the higher ed community by saying that humanities degrees are ineffective in the marketplace so they should be eliminated. Still others will argue that humanities degrees spur creativity and have their place in academia.

In “Why Can’t College Grads Find Better Jobs?”, the issue of graduate unemployment is addressed:

Part of the issue has to do with what students are choosing to study. Young college grads with education, teaching, and engineering majors are more likely to find a job that matches the rigor of their college degree than grads who majored in humanities, according to 2009 Labor Department data cited by the New York Times. According to the Manpower survey, many employers think the problem is rooted in the education system, which fails to get children interested in what the economy really needs: science and engineering.

Here’s another interesting fact: sales is among the top job offers for college graduates with a starting salary of $41,179, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. There are, however, only 40 sales programs taught in over 4000 colleges and universities. Another convincing argument that colleges are not recognizing the importance of training students based on the current job market.

Is the economy to blame?

Most graduates who are unemployed blame the economy and greedy corporations for their lack of employment options. You can’t argue with the fact that the recession has definitely affected the graduate job market. Employment rates for new college graduates have fallen sharply since 2009 along with starting salaries. Only 50 percent of the jobs landed by new graduates require a college degree spurring the critics of higher education to debate its worth. Average starting salaries for graduates have dropped 10 percent since 2008.

Even more disturbing is the long-lasting effects of graduating in a recession. The National Bureau of Economic Research reported: “Graduating in a recession leads to large initial earnings losses. These losses, which amount to about 9% of annual earnings in the initial stage, eventually recede, but slowly—halving within five years after graduation.”

The inability to secure a job after graduation has caused many graduates to go back to school for more education. They fear that being on a low paying job trajectory could hurt their future careers; the low salaries tend to follow them for years after graduation.

Do students lack motivation?

The authors of Academically Adrift, Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia contacted a study among recent graduates. “How much are students actually learning in contemporary higher education? The answer for many undergraduates, we have concluded, is not much.” For many undergraduates, they write, “drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose is readily apparent.”

Students were given a Collegiate Learning Assessment designed to measure gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other skills taught in college. Forty-five percent of students surveyed did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning during the first two years of college; 36 percent of students did not improve their learning over four years of college. The main culprit for lack of academic progress of students, according to the authors, is a lack of rigor. summarized the study’s conclusion as laid out in the book:

The book rejects the idea of federal mandates on testing or the curriculum, suggesting that such requirements rarely work. And the book acknowledges that many college educators and students don’t yet see a crisis, given that students can enroll, earn good grades for four years, and graduate — very much enjoying themselves in the process. But in an era when “the world has become unforgiving” to those who don’t work hard or know how to think, Arum said that this may be a time to consider real change.

Should college prepare you for a job after graduation? Are students responsible for assuring they are prepared for the workforce after college? Can graduates overcome the recession and secure employment in spite of the overcrowded workforce?


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