25 Jul. 2016 | Comments (0)
Every year, high school students and their parents spend much time, effort, and money on the college search. By comparison, they spend very little time focused on how they will spend their undergraduate years while in college. Yet a series of decisions that start the moment they secure their spot in the freshman class—from choosing a major and courses to finding internships—increasingly plays a much larger role in life after graduation than where someone goes to college.
For decades, the college degree had been the strongest signal of job readiness. Today there is a lot of noise interfering with that signal and employers question whether a traditional undergraduate education arms students with the soft skills needed in the workplace—problem solving, critical thinking, communications, and working in teams.
An analysis of millions of job ads by the workforce analytics firm Burning Glass found that those requiring a bachelor’s degree list more soft skills than technical skills among the set of requirements. What’s more, 20% of positions (excluding health care positions) also expect a certificate or a license for a particular technical skill. In other words, the degree might open the door for a job interview, but employers don’t trust it enough to validate that someone can actually do the job.
As a result, young adults no longer have as clear or straightforward a career path as previous generations did. Many end up drifting aimlessly through their third decade of life as I found while interviewing 752 young adults (aged 24-27) across the country for my book, There Is Life After College. According to a survey conducted for the book, twenty-somethings nowadays transition into adulthood in one of three ways: they’re either Sprinters, Wanderers, or Stragglers:
- Sprinters (35% of the young adults surveyed) jump right into their career after college or are on a path to a successful launch after completing additional education.
- Wanderers (32% of the young adults surveyed) take their time—about half of their twenties—to get their start in a career.
- Stragglers (33% of the young adults surveyed) press pause and spend most of their twenties trying to get their start.
While we expect most graduates to find their way in life after college, Sprinters make up only about one-third of today’s graduates. The biggest difference between them and the two-thirds of students who struggle to launch after college is how Sprinters navigated their undergraduate years: 80% had at least one internship, 64% were sure of their major when they began, and 43% had less than $10,000 in student loan debt. (Note that the survey did not take family wealth or income into account, so some of these “Sprinters” could arguably have other advantages.)
My interviews showed that students who drift through college with little direction are likely to become Wanderers afterwards. Half of Wanderers weren’t sure of their major when they entered college, and only 47% had an internship. After graduation, just one in five were employed in their field of study (compared to 97% of Sprinters).
Meanwhile, Stragglers often take off time from college or go part time. By their mid-twenties, 99% of them still haven’t earned a college degree. This shouldn’t be a surprise given that there are 12.5 million twentysomethings with some college credits and no degree, by far the largest share of adults who leave college short of a degree, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
So how can students and their parents, who are about to make one of the largest investments of their life in a college degree, ensure that there is a return on that investment?
For one, slow down the conveyor belt from high school into college. Too many students follow the herd and rush off to college because there is nothing else to do, and they subsequently become the Wanders and Stragglers. More students should consider deferring their college admission for a year to brush up on their academics, explore what truly interests them, and more fully consider their career options. The students I interviewed who took a gap year through a rapidly expanding constellation of providers, including AmeriCorps, BridgeEDU, and Global Citizen Year, reported that they were more comfortable with risk and more resilient.
Second, students shouldn’t mortgage their futures by taking on loans that will limit their career options after graduation. Students with high levels of debt end up taking jobs just to pay the bills. According to Gallup, most entrepreneurs owe less than $10,000 in student loans because any greater debt has a negative impact on the decision to start a business. Students have a wide variety of choices beyond the bachelor’s degree—associate’s degrees, occupational certificates, apprenticeships, industry certifications—that are the gateway to a significant proportion of the jobs of tomorrow that won’t be easily automated by robots. Most of those are “middle-skills jobs,” which demand more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree. There are roughly 29 million of these jobs today. Some 11 million of them pay $50,000 or more a year, and 4 million pay $75,000 or more. Even though most people think of these as blue-collar jobs, nearly half of them are in office occupations.
Community colleges need not be only a building block to a bachelor’s degree—they can be an end in themselves. If you were to consider only the economic return on the credential, associate’s degrees pay off too and, in some cases, more than if students went on to get a bachelor’s degree. In Colorado, for instance, graduates with an associate’s degree in an applied field (think registered nurses and power transmission installers) earn on average around $41,000 a year after graduation, some $8,000 more than those with bachelor’s degrees (the media per capita income in Colorado is about $31,000).
No matter where students choose to go to college, once they’re actually on campus, they should chase after experiences—whether undergraduate research, study abroad, or internships—that will arm them with interpersonal skills. Diving deep into the toughest majors, courses, and activities provides the challenge to work hard and learn from the best professors and peers. Such experiences will provide the most thorough preparation for the challenges, complexity, and ambiguity of the work world after college.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 05/31/2016.