Is College Preparation for Life? Grads Weigh In

A decade out, 4 of 5 degree recipients say their undergraduate education prepared them for work, U.S. survey finds.
September 2, 2005

Nearly four in five college graduates say their undergraduate education was "very important" preparation for their work and career, while about 9 in 10 of those who got an advanced degree say the same thing, according to a study released Thursday by the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.

The study, which is based on a 2003 survey of 1992-93 bachelor's degree recipients, offers an intriguing if slightly historical sense of how college and grad school look to a set of graduates as they peer back in time.

The answers support many pieces of conventional wisdom about higher education -- for instance, that a liberal arts degree doesn't seem to prepare students as well for work and career as science and professional fields do, and that students at private colleges tend to value the quality of their undergraduate instruction more than those at public colleges -- but raise doubt about some others.

The survey asked the graduates to assess various aspects of their undergraduate and graduate educations and the impact of their education on their lives.

Asked which elements of their undergraduate education were very important to their lives now, 60.7 percent cited the quality of instruction, 58.3 percent said their undergraduate major, 49.8 cited undergraduate professional courses, 41.8 percent said internship and work opportunities, and 36.3 percent identified liberal arts courses.

But those answers differed widely depending on who was answering. For instance, graduates of private institutions were likelier to value the quality of instruction (67.5 percent) and liberal arts courses (46.0 percent) than were public college graduates (57.8 percent and 32.4 percent, respectively), while alumni of public institutions put more emphasis on their major course of study and professional courses they took.

When asked how well their undergraduate education had prepared them for various aspects of their current lives, 78.5 percent of all respondents said it had been "very important" in preparing them for work and career, 57.2 percent said it had been "very important" in helping them establish financial security, and 55.9 said it had been "very important" in preparing them for further education.

Graduates in the arts and humanities and social and behavioral sciences were significantly less likely than their peers (69.7 percent and 71.0 percent, respectively) to say their undergraduate education had provided "very important" preparation for work and career or for establishing financial security (47.7 percent and 50.7 percent). Perhaps not surprisingly, graduates who had undergraduate grade point averages under 2.75 were less likely (76.5 percent) than those with GPA's above 3.75 (83.5 percent) to say that their undergraduate education prepared them for work and career.

Of the bachelor's degree recipients surveyed, 25.6 percent went on to get a master's, doctoral or first professional degree. Of those, 89 percent said their graduate education was "very important preparation" for their work and career, 76.8 said it was very important preparation for "taking on new challenges," 70.5 percent for establishing financial security, 60.4 percent for making informed choices, and 48.4 percent for "establishing a place in the community."

As might be expected, those in the arts and humanities said that graduate school had done the least for their pocketbooks. Sixty-two percent of them said their graduate education had been "very important preparation" for establishing financial security, compared to 80 percent of those in science, mathematics and engineering fields. But students in business and management fields were less likely than humanities and arts grads to say that their graduate work prepared them for career success.


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