Student life

Why college students are anxious about employment (essay)

I got my first real job at the age of 15, as a busboy at Oliver’s Bakery Restaurant, one of Toronto’s busiest brunch spots. I have so many intense memories from that job -- unquestionably Proustian from the strong smells (fresh-baked rolls) and tastes (café truffle torte, still the best dessert I’ve ever had) to bringing Sunday’s first customer, Lois (always arriving before the waitstaff), her coffee and blueberry muffin; polishing wineglasses with steam from a pot of hot water; learning how to punch orders into the computer system (I still recall all the modifiers for eggs -- sunny side up, anyone?); and being bullied.

When I started, I was the youngest busboy by at least two years. A senior busboy -- let’s call him Gord, and not just because most Canadian males are named Gord or Gordie -- would take coffee from my coffee station, often putting an empty pot back on the burner, leaving burned coffee on the bottom (hell to clean). He’d also put his dishes in my bus pans, requiring me to empty them twice as frequently and doubling my exposure to that pervasive restaurant toxin “bus juice,” the dark gray sickly-sweet-smelling liquid at the bottom of each bus pan -- my one bad Proustian memory from that job. Finally, he’d collect tips from the waiters and short me every time.

It’s been a while since I’ve been bullied, but last week I had my first experience on Twitter. In reaction to a recent piece on the link between faculty control of curriculum and the challenge of aligning curriculum to employer needs, a number of faculty members on “Academic Twitter” took to our president’s favorite medium to denounce the argument and me personally.

Ad hominem attacks aside, several academics found “outrageous” the notion that aligning curriculum with employer needs was a goal that faculty members shared. One prominent professor with an army of over 21,000 followers said, “Sorry, that isn't a shared goal. It is a questionable goal, in fact.” She then went on to dismiss the notion that students are focused on employment, saying, “The research shows today’s students consider community and family [not employment].” Another who was more accepting of the notion that students might care about getting a good first job said, “That's a labor-market problem that is not going to be solved by the educational system.”


It’s clear that many professors simply don’t believe New America’s finding that today’s students enroll in postsecondary programs for what appear to be mundane reasons: to improve employment opportunities (91 percent), to make more money (90 percent) and to get a good job (89 percent). So if colleges and universities are going to do a better job addressing this now pre-eminent student need, it’s going to be important for faculty members and administrators to understand why employment has become so important to students.

One reason is the exceptionally poor employment outcomes experienced by college graduates during the Great Recession. Most students have older siblings or friends who were underemployed -- often significantly -- for many years. But if this is the main or only reason, employment concerns should diminish as memories of the Great Recession recede (like the fading Lehman Brothers logo on the coffee mug I keep in my bathroom).

But I don’t think they will, because there’s a deeper reason for this shift: most young people have little exposure to paid work.

When today’s college and university instructors were in high school, even if they weren’t working as bussers during the school year, it’s likely they worked over the summer. Maybe they scooped ice cream, delivered papers, mowed lawns or worked as lifeguards. But as Bloomberg reported last week, last summer only 43 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds were working or looking for a job -- down from nearly 70 percent a generation ago. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts teen work force participation will drop below 27 percent by 2024.

Why is this occurring? Bloomberg cites crowding out by older workers and immigrants. Other explanations are stricter teen driving laws and compressed summer calendars. But the most plausible explanation is that jobs like busboy have been devalued by society in general -- and parents in particular -- as useful steps on the road to a successful career.

Instead, students are being encouraged to study and participate in as many extracurricular activities as possible in order to burnish their college applications. Jeff Selingo noted as much in his Washington Post column last week, quoting one expert as saying, “Upper-middle-class families and above have made the determination that college admissions officers devalue paid work and that if you’re not pursuing a hectic schedule of activities you’ll be less appealing to colleges.”

I agree with Selingo that sacrificing paid work at the altar of college admissions and the almighty bachelor’s degree has not only been shortsighted, but harmful. As Selingo noted, his job in a hospital kitchen “was probably the worst job I ever held, but it was the first time I wasn’t surrounded by my peers, so it taught me how to interact with people of all backgrounds and ages. I also learned the importance of showing up on time, keeping to a schedule, completing tasks and paying attention to details (after all, I didn’t want to mess up a tray for a patient on a specific diet).”

So whereas college and university faculty members developed their soft skills in hospital kitchens -- and while I learned to navigate jerks like Gord -- their students are at a material disadvantage in this regard (providing some basis for employers’ increasing complaints about the soft skills of millennials).

This disconnection to paid work has been exacerbated by the rise of unpaid internships during and after college. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports the percentage of college graduates participating in at least one internship is now over 80 percent (up from less than 10 percent a generation ago). Technically, unpaid internships are illegal unless the employer is a nonprofit organization, or unless interns receive college credits. Sadly, by broadly awarding credits for unpaid internships, many colleges and universities are enabling this system of internship peonage, thereby furthering young people’s distance from paid work.

The result is that for most millennials -- and now Gen Z -- there’s no sense of easing in to paid work, no gradual evolution. It’s now binary: at the end of college, switch off childhood and switch on employment and adulthood. The anticipation of this sudden shift is producing a great deal of anxiety around the issue of employment, and the first paid job in particular. (An anxiety that today’s faculty, Selingo and I never felt because we all had a sense we were employable -- maybe not in the jobs we wanted, but we had a clear sense we would be able to get by.) Of course, the crisis of college affordability and the concomitant mountain of student loan debt means this anxiety is all the more acute.


I recall a similar sense of anxiety back at Oliver’s. When I was promoted to waiter at the age of 17, I was often tasked with Section 6 -- the restaurant’s largest section, closest to the front with appealing window-side tables. It was all too easy for hosts and hostesses to accede to customer requests and seat all the tables at the same time. And when it inevitably happened -- switch from deserted section to a dozen tables demanding coffees and delicious desserts like the insanely amazing café truffle torte -- I’d find myself in the weeds, literally in a dreamlike-state, unable to process what to do next. Whenever I got Section 6, I spent the whole shift dreading this moment. As I think about it now, while being in the weeds was taxing, the extreme negative feelings I still have for Section 6 can only be explained by the fact that the anxiety was worse.

So when it comes to employability and aligning curriculum to meet employer needs so students are more likely to get a first job, academics could be more understanding. Many of their students are dreading graduation, paralyzingly anxious at the thought of being in the weeds in terms of paid work.

Perhaps the real reason I was bullied last week is that this topic gives many professors anxiety about their own future employment. But as we’ve learned, it doesn’t have to be a binary shift. By talking it through and getting the faculty comfortable with the inevitable evolution of our system of higher education to one that is more aligned to employer needs, I’m hoping to alleviate some of this anxiety.

Ryan Craig is managing director of University Ventures, a firm reimagining the future of higher education and creating new pathways from education to employment.

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Once upon a time, I was a resident adviser, an RA. I was not very good at it and only did it for a summer, but it did give me some perspective when I later worked as a hall director supervising a staff of RAs. I did this at two places: a small women’s college (dream job) and a large university (not so much). That perspective stayed with me through various jobs, including my stretch as the vice president for student affairs at a small college where residential life was part of my portfolio.

So it was with great interest that I read reports of the recent strike by RAs at Scripps College. It wasn’t the first job action of its kind, but it will probably get a lot of attention. Last week’s news brought a related story: the decision by the National Labor Relations Board to allow RAs at George Washington University to unionize, a first for private institutions. Even though the organization representing the RAs has since requested that the union election vote be called off, as I’ve read these stories, I’ve reached an alarming conclusion: we are in trouble. In our residence halls and beyond, we rely on these peaceful armies to fulfill a raft of duties, and have done so for so long that we take them for granted.

During a recent discussion in the graduate class I teach on student affairs, I was comparing the distinct underlying cultures of student affairs and faculty work as a way of framing some of the challenges in that relationship. I have given this mini lecture for about 25 years, referring to commonly accepted differences between the two groups. When I mentioned one particular difference, my students stopped me.

What I said was, “While it is the role of faculty members to be institutional critics, student affairs professionals tend to be institutional cheerleaders.” Brows furrowed. Heads slowly shook.

“No, we’re not,” said one student. The others quickly agreed. I felt my internal belief system shudder and then realign. I didn’t even have to ask. Of course these are not the graduate students I have taught for years. They have come of age at a time when higher education is criticized from all sides, and even as future student affairs professionals themselves, they have joined in that criticism. I thought about the times that I, as a supervisor, encountered resistance to my various requests and expectations. I had chalked it up to the millennial culture, taking cover among the older professionals I worked with whose loyalty to the institution was reassuring -- although perhaps baked in by the reality of the job market as much as a genuine affection for the place.

But that might not be our future in student affairs, as evidenced by RAs who are beginning to organize and who may force us to change. We can, as in all situations, resist that change or anticipate and help to shape it.

One might ask, “What is their problem?” Being an RA (goes the standard spiel) offers a leadership development opportunity, a financial boon, a chance to be more engaged in the campus community, mentoring from a caring and capable professional, and membership in an elite club alongside peers who become close friends.

OK, that standard spiel? Totally old paradigm, which I admit I occasionally retreat to when I’m scared or tired or just not thinking critically. So let me try again.

Being an RA is a stressful, high-pressure, time-consuming job -- one often undertaken by students desperate to reduce the cost of their education and debt (who, on some campuses, are disproportionately students of color), for which they often receive inadequate training and supervision, and for which they are targets of enmity, not envy, by their peers.

And they have had it with us, I’m afraid. If the Scripps strike is any indication, students who serve in this role are mad as hell and may not be willing to take it anymore. Can we manage residence halls without student staff? What would that even look like?

Inconsistency Across Institutions

When we recruit, train and employ RAs, we are, in many ways, relying on an outdated set of beliefs about the lives of students and their willingness to be exploited. I say this knowing that I have fully participated in that exploitation. We count on our ability to convince RAs that they are doing missionary work. We pump them up; we shower them with verbal praise and “RA of the Month” awards. The cult that captured so many of us used strategies to recruit like-minded individuals who were willing to work for minimal compensation, who were happy to be on the team.

Students are still prone to joining teams, but not the ones we need in order to provide the optimal residential experience. Now, students join Facebook groups and speak-outs, protests and social justice sit-ins. They make demands. They do not trust us. Yes, we have always had students who make demands and do not trust the administration, but we have also always had the thin blue line of RAs to help mitigate their peers’ problematic behavior, to be our proxies in the halls and elsewhere on campus, and to make us feel better by liking us and reassuring us that we are good people who care about students.

But things are different now. The RAs at Scripps are the ones demanding change and loudly publicizing their distrust of student affairs staff. The RAs! At first I felt their betrayal slice through my professional heart. And then I considered some of the realities of today’s RA experience and realized that this might be the first of a series of shock waves that will topple the careful structures of residential education. If we are to build structures capable of withstanding those tremors, we must understand the experiences of many RAs now working -- and it is work -- at our colleges.

I have been part of and observed some very good and some very mediocre residence life departments, and that inconsistency across institutions is an issue we need to address. Every campus does this work differently, claiming its idiosyncrasies are endemic to its culture. But consider the variety of RA structure and support:

  • Compensation: No two campuses do this exactly the same way. Some provide a free room and board plan, others only a stipend. Still others offer a single room at the price of a double or a partial reduction in a room fee (though it is sometimes wiped out by a financial aid adjustment). And I’d wager that certain campuses provide no meaningful compensation at all.
  • Training, part 1: RAs often return two or three weeks early in the summer to begin their training. Some institutions employ several “levels” of RAs, with senior staff returning a week ahead of the rest of the RAs so they can help plan training. A student earning $10 an hour at a full-time summer job might be required to sacrifice $1,000 in earnings in order to arrive on the campus in time to begin training.
  • Training, part 2: Some institutions require RAs to take a credit-bearing class as part of the job, while others expect regular participation in in-service trainings throughout the semester. If an RA cannot do one or both of these, the job may be lost, along with housing.
  • Role confusion: On some campuses, RAs are social directors, key holders and information conduits. On others, they are the first line of response to a number of complex student-related crises. RAs routinely deal with high-risk situations each weekend. Yes, they have professional staff backing them up, but those staff members are often called only after an RA has been dispatched to, or has come upon, a scary and high-stakes situation.
  • Supervision: The best residential life departments employ skilled professional master’s-level staff members to hire, train and supervise RAs. They have a reasonable staff-to-RA ratio, they meet regularly, they hold RAs accountable for their responsibilities and they themselves are supervised well by talented midlevel or senior professionals. And then there is the other 80 percent. Those departments see rapid turnover among entry-level professionals, sometimes midyear. They pile expectations on resident directors, leading to 60-hour workweeks or more in exchange for housing and a pitifully low salary. Such young professionals are just slightly better trained for the crises they routinely encounter. Like the RAs they supervise, they are overwhelmed, burned out and, if one considers their demographics (mid-20s), as prone to anxiety and depression as their students.

So we ask RAs to do this difficult work, and we count on their loyalty to the institution, their love for the community, their general goodness as young people who are supposedly happy to have this level of responsibility thrust upon them. It has worked for decades. Aside from the occasional flameout of incompetence or burnout of overcommitment, those RAs tough it out and even thank us at the end of the year -- often at the annual banquets we host for them -- for putting them through a 36-week boot camp.

But if we have learned one thing from the weekly reports of various student protests across the country, it’s this: students are not nearly as grateful for opportunities as we might hope. They are not mutely appreciative of a chance to attend a prestigious college or university that underpays its dining-service workers. Or to represent their institution on the playing field, filling its stadium seats, living on poverty-level wages while they do it. They are certainly not grateful to hear highly paid speakers reinforce racist or sexist or homophobic perspectives. And they are not willing to work for what essentially amounts to a couple of dollars an hour, especially not when that work might include having to report a sexual assault, watch while a resident is handcuffed after a drug bust, talk a resident out of self-harming or key into a room to find a student hanging from a belt looped over a steam pipe, as one of my RAs once did.

Adjusting Expectations

I see this all going one of two ways: either their protests will grow and impede the already-difficult work of community building on our residential campuses, or students will simply stop applying to do the work (which is happening on campuses already, according to anecdotal reports from friends in the business of trying to recruit them). We must create a third way. We need to move away from the old paradigm of relying on their inherent loyalty and eagerness to be appreciated by us. We must standardize compensation, training, supervision and job expectations. If we start with a fair compensation package that rewards a manageable job, supported by competent professionals, we might then attract back to the role the strongest candidates and not rely on those who seek the job for the wrong reasons.

We should limit RA training to one week. It can be done. Typically, every campus office that interacts with students will, at some point over the summer, make a request of the RA training committee to have a session added that addresses their services or areas of concern. How about saying no? Can we move some of the content-based training online and ask RAs to complete it over the course of the summer, a small chunk at a time, and compensate them for that effort?

Finally, we must stop asking these young, inexperienced people who are struggling with their own mental and emotional health challenges to respond to students in crisis. How we do that is, of course, quite expensive, because it requires adding to our professional staff numbers. One possible response is for us to work upstream, in the admissions process, to better assess the wisdom of recruiting and accepting some students -- but that’s a topic for another day. At the heart of this challenge is our need to actually protect our students and not require them to carry more weight than is possible.

A coming storm? It may already be here. An anticipated drought? On some campuses, the RA well is running dry. We can hunker down, fondly recall the old days when mediating roommate disputes, unlocking doors and pouring out beer cans were the typical stuff of nights on call, and watch as the world’s last RAs struggle through a very difficult climate. Or we can try adjusting our own expectations of the work and our students and be prepared for any weather. The next steps are up to us.

Lee Burdette Williams is an educator and writer in Burlington, Vt.

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