The Relevance of College

For some time now, a hot topic in education reform has been the relevance of high school.  We talk about aligning courses with student interests.  We discuss how good jobs require high school diplomas.  We hypothesize on the hard and soft skills today’s high schools provide tomorrow’s workers.  The result?  Dual enrollment, STEM education, new graduation requirements, and higher-stakes exit testing.

But what about the relevance of postsecondary education?  We’re quick to throw out the statistic that 90 percent of new jobs in the next decade will require postsecondary education.  But what type of education?   It all leaves us with a big question — are our colleges and universities preparing today’s undergraduates for careers?  More importantly, are our institutions of higher education producing graduates who can meet the needs and demands of our 21st century economy?  Should they be?

These are very big questions.  We like to believe that college is a place to learn new things, experience new experiences, and meet new people.  College is a place to broaden our minds, home to lessons on topics such as art history, philosophy, Mesopotamian history, and ancient tools of ancient cultures.  Many will tell you, if you want to prepare for a job, go to a trade school.  College is for developing and conditioning the mind as a whole.

Where does the truth lie?  Yesterday, USA Today’s Mary Beth Marklein wrote of a new Association of American Colleges and Universities study of 301 business leaders.  http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2008-01-22-graduate-assessment_N.htm  The findings seem fairly straight-forward.  The majority of employers believe half of college graduates lack the skills and knowledge for today’s jobs.  Internships are far more important than college transcripts.  And we want to know which schools do the best job of preparing our students for work.

What does this all mean?  For one, it validates Eduflack’s personal experiences.  I am a proud graduate of the University of Virginia, one of the top public institutions in the nation.  I took classes such as the Female Gothic (far more Jane Austin than any man should ever have to read), and I considered taking courses such as History of the Circus.  All of it in the name of broadening my mind.

I also recognized the importance of internships and skill development.  (Self motivated, mind you, there were no advisors or professors telling me how to secure internships or about the skills for my career path.)  A polisci course in U.S. Congress helped me secure an internship with U.S. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, which led to other Hill internships which then led to full-time jobs.  I spent a year as managing editor of The Cavalier Daily, U.Va.’s paper of record, which gave me the experience of putting out a 16-page newspaper each day, while managing a volunteer staff of more than 100.  I left U.Va. with a full clip packet (showing I could write) and practical experience from my internships and newspaper leadership.  The result — lots of good jobs.  In my early days, I showed a lot of my past op-eds or news clips and I talked of my Hill experiences.  I was never asked about my GPA, never probed on the courses I took, and was never asked about the symbolism of Mary Shelley’s monster.

Why does all this matter?  Today’s students spend a lot of money for those college diplomas.  The tab for an in-state, public college degree is now likely to run at least $50K.  THose going to private institutions could end up spending more than $200K when all is said and done.  And that’s assuming one completes a program in the expected four years, not the more likely five or six.  We take out those loans because we expect return on the investment.  And that return is not to be the smartest person at a cocktail party, it’s to gain a rewarding, well-paying career. 

Ultimately, there needs to be a balance.  Yes, we can study Gothic novels, but we also should be taking the courses that help develop critical skills for the workplace.  College students should be able to demonstrate that they attained knowledge in college and they know how to effectively apply it in real-world or real-career situations.  College not only gave them the tools to success, but it showed them how to use it.  A college degree means one is career and life ready.

The business leaders in AACU’s study seem to recognize that.  And it is a message we all should take to heart. 

College is indeed a worthwhile investment.  It provides an opportunity for exploration and thought.  It stimulates both the mind and soul.  But it also needs an end game.  The goal of college should not be to gain access to a graduate school, where we gain the training needed to secure a good job.  That undergraduate degree should be a gateway to gainful employment.

The AACU data also raises an interesting question.  Employers hope college graduates will be ready for available jobs.  How far are we from employers expecting guarantees from colleges and universities?  If a graduate lacks the skills to handle an entry-level white collar job, they should go back to college (at the college’s expense) to gain the needed skills and experiences.  Then, a college diploma will mean something, college will be relevant, and all involved will see the true ROI of postsecondary education.

3 thoughts on “The Relevance of College

  1. Why should business require a guarantee? If they want a guarantee, then they can fund theirm own apprentice program or start their own college. Indeed, if the internships were the most important part of your collegiate experience, then why should businesses simply fund more of these internships? Why should the taxpayers fund it instead as is now the case?

  2. When a local business hires a recent college graduate, they assume that graduate is going to come to them with core knowledge and core skills.  The business then spends thousands of dollars to train that graduate for the job.  They are already invested in the process.  But they should have some assurances that a college diploma, regardless of major, means that a graduate can read, write, do computational math, problem solve, and be capable of completing core tasks.  If not, why bother with a diploma at all?Bringing value to college is a shared experience — shared by higher education, business, and the community.  It shouldn’t be on only one to do all of the work.  Most internships are funded by business, and not by the taxpayers.  Students take thes internships in the summer, at their own expense.  Many are taken without pay, and the student — not the college or the taxpayer — has to foot the cost of room, board, transportation, etc.  And that’s probably the way it should be.  Students should understand the value of such programs.The point is that our colleges and universities should be educating students on the value of internships and such and should help facilitate programs.  Partnerships with local businesses, help with recruitment, etc.  It is in the students’ interests, the colleges’ interest, and the business’ interest.

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