Killjoy post-secondary education statistics discourage students from graduating

Published: Thursday, Dec. 6 2012 10:20 a.m. MST

I’ve known Kevin Coughlin since he was a high school student. Seeing him annually where he volunteers at a summer youth program has been a bit like watching time-lapse photography of the Millennial generation as a whole. A gifted student with a love for baseball and an unassuming demeanor sounds like such a cliché that he might be easy to overlook.

As his undergraduate commencement approached last spring, I noticed his social media posts grew more frequent, laced with a gallows humor uncharacteristic of the young man who always smiled so earnestly and easily. “College graduation felt like an inevitability. It was anti-climactic. It wasn’t a feeling of accomplishment.”

This was from a young man with a near perfect grade point average who graduated near the top of the largest class to ever matriculate at Suffolk University. “Money was running out. I had to move back home. I didn’t have a job, but some of my friends did. I’ve never been good at waiting and so much of the stress was in the waiting.”

Most students are told that the selection of a college and major course of study are opportunities to begin working on the blank canvas of self-direction that lies before them. On Tuesday, McKinsey & Company released a report, “Education to Employment: Designing a System That Works.” The report, based on surveys of 8,500 young people, educators and employers in nine countries, including the United States, paints that canvas with some rather dark colors.

According to the report, recent graduates and employers are roughly on the same page about one thing: just short of half (45 and 42 percent respectively) believe that post-secondary education is adequately preparing young people for the job market. Employers took it a step further, with 39 percent stating that a skills shortage is the primary reason for continued vacancies at the entry-level.

Given the substantial net cost of tuition for most families, these are frightening statistics. But it would be a mistake to interpret these problems as reason for making decisions about majors strictly on future salary, or worse, forgoing higher education all together.

The good news is that you can balance practical matters, such as cost and return on investment (ROI) with your student’s intellectual interests. When discussing possible majors, explore the following in sequence:

        • Interest. Advising a student to just follow their passions, and to presume success will result, is ill advised and simplistic. Interest is still important, however, as few people can find success in an area they do not like. The cost of changing majors and in many cases adding semesters as a result is substantial. Even worse, dropping out can mean student loan debt without the higher salary required to pay it back.
        • Salary. A growing number of colleges provide average starting salaries for graduates by major, or by school or college within a large university. If that data is not readily available, contact the institution’s career services office. Students and parents tend to communicate with admission and financial aid initially, but career services should be engaged early and often throughout the college experience.
        • Job growth and employment rate. Average starting salary is a helpful but insufficient data point. It is best to think about income over a student’s lifetime. Realistically, projections decades into the future have minimal accuracy in terms of salary. What you can consider is how frequently certain career paths involve changes. If one can expect lags between opportunities (as is often the case in broadcasting or the performing arts), or frequent relocations to move up the ladder and remain competitive, even a decent average salary can be deceiving.
        • Geography. If your chosen career path is only opportunity rich in areas with a high cost of living, that salary figure can erode very quickly. This can be true in investment banking, hospitality, academia, government and many other occupations.
        It is also common for parents to feel conflicted when their child’s academic and career interests point to professions that are known for lower compensation, or the chosen field study is in the liberal arts where mapping to specific career options is less obvious. Countless friends have called me over the years to work through feelings of pride and worry when their child has decided to enter teaching, social work, the clergy and many other helping professions. Once again, these needn’t be all or nothing decisions.
        • Talk about the “why.” What is it about a particular subject that appeals to the student? In the helping professions, the answer is usually about outcomes: seeing students succeed, helping those less fortunate get on their feet, etc. Double majors and minors can be ideal in making for a more robust resume later, especially if the second subject is complementary in some way. For example, many graduates of the majors above will work for nonprofit organizations. A minor or even second major in business or social entrepreneurship can be very helpful. If you know how to market your institution, lead it to financial success, and motivate employees and volunteers to do their best, you can help more constituents and also achieve higher pay and greater job security as your career progresses.
        • Do some preliminary mapping from major to career. For example, sociology is a valuable and enlightening area of scholarship. Unfortunately, it isn’t known for lucrative or even adequate job opportunities upon graduation. Since sociology is usually considered a liberal arts discipline, economics (which is likewise considered a liberal arts discipline at many colleges) can be a great companion major or minor. Since it is often administratively managed in the same school or college, course logistics should be easy to navigate. It also gives the sociology major, often a proponent of social justice issues, a second language in which to advocate for their area of interest. This increases one’s efficacy in lobbying policy-makers and provides a more comprehensive understanding of constituent needs, most of which have some relationship to scarcity of resources. It also maintains a student’s proficiency with basic quantitative skills. All of these things make them more employable and more qualified for managerial roles later.
        College remains a solid investment. Unfortunately, as the McKinsey report illustrates, most institutions of higher learning still fall short in that they lack a clearly marked pathway from college to career. So while you may have to do a little research and planning on your own, the prospects for your child’s material well-being and personal fulfillment needn’t be at cross purposes.
      As for Kevin, he has been working with high-need students in special education and will be attending umpire school in January. He says that he feels better now that he is working and no longer waiting for his life to start. “I don’t know exactly what comes next, but I know that these two things make me happy. Hopefully, I’ll do some good in the world.”

John J. Brady is the chief operating officer of HigherNext, Inc. With 20 years in the education sector, he writes on matters of higher education, transitions into college and career, nonprofit management and standardized testing. JB@highernext.com

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