More than 45 years ago, Benjamin Braddock left an indelible mark on the American public in "The Graduate." Politely yet palpably rejecting advice to choose “plastics” as a career, Benjamin submerges into the darkness of a swimming pool in an attempt to escape the looming decision: what’s next?
The lack of clarity that plagued Benjamin’s generation has only been heightened for today’s graduates who receive equally cryptic messages to pursue jobs in technology, business, or fields for which they have little interest or knowledge. But they also find themselves competing with record numbers of college graduates, often for low-paying or part-time jobs while shouldering college loans.
For most, the college experience was itself stuttered and uncertain. Only slightly more than a third now obtain a bachelor’s degree within the traditional four-year window. Eight years in, only 60 percent graduate. More than a third churn through at least two institutions, and most change their majors along the way. Coming out, debt loads and default rates are at record highs.
Despite these problems, the United States continues to have the highest number of college graduates in the world and ranks fourth internationally in the proportion of college graduates among 25-to-64 year-olds, at 42 percent. For those with degrees, unemployment rates are lower and lifetime earnings are higher. The basic contour of the college storyline persists, even in the face of the Great Recession: College brings rewards to those who finish. It not only makes a difference in employment and wages, especially over one's lifetime, but also in many aspects of health and well-being. The exclusive focus on jobs and wages is shortsighted. These non-economic rewards need to enter public discussion of the value of higher education.
The short-term problem, and a serious one for many young Americans, is getting started after college. One major challenge is unrealistic expectations. That college degree isn’t a fast-pass ticket to a high-status high-wage job. Most young graduates will have difficulty finding full-time work, and there are few options for stable jobs with real opportunities for advancement. Graduates and parents see the popular unpaid internship as a portfolio-builder for “real” work later on. Be forewarned: These internships are not likely to lead to employment and meaningful skills. At some point, graduates need to get started in a job rather than wait too long for the right job. Just how long one should wait is a tough call. But there will inevitably be some waiting up front. Graduates and parents need to be prepared for it.
A bigger problem is that graduates do not know what they want to do or, if they do, what options exist for getting there. Their career aspirations are often too high for their abilities and backgrounds — but no one has told them otherwise. For many there are feelings of regret: “I shouldn’t have screwed around when I had the chance to buckle down.” “What was I thinking when I decided to major in art?” Many mistakenly assume that enrolling in graduate school to earn yet another degree or two will automatically make them more marketable or be profitable as they pile on new debt. Graduate school is an expensive place to find oneself and an ineffective place to warehouse young people.
What should we do? Young people need to align their aspirations with their skills and abilities and know the odds of their ambitions, and parents must aid them in helpful and honest ways. Not everyone is going to be a screenwriter or real estate mogul -- and a few years as a barista are unlikely to be well-spent if one’s career ambitions are not in coffee service.
Young people need a better understanding of the labor market and a strategic plan that focuses on who they are, not just on what they want to be. They also need to know the truth about adulthood: that we seldom land where we expect. Successful pathways into adulthood are fueled by flexibility, resilience, and adaptation -- not exactly the stuff of college textbooks and learning outcomes.
Institutions of higher education have a moral obligation to open these difficult conversations with students early on -- but in a competitive marketplace, under-resourced institutions are often unwilling or unable to be honest about the chances of their graduates. Institutions expend virtually all of their energy getting students in the door and then keeping them in -- that’s where the financial incentives are -- than they do to see their students out. Graduation largely marks the end of the university’s commitment to the student. Apart from career fairs and basic advice on resumes, cover letters, and interviewing, it’s goodbye and good luck. To leave school is to become adult: You’re on your own. The day after graduation, institutions turn their attention to the incoming class.
The bottom line is that if young people are graduating from college but not getting jobs that are even marginally aligned with their career hopes, or that pay enough to get them on a path toward economic independence, we have reason to be concerned. We also acknowledge that institutions of higher education have a responsibility to foster student understanding and appreciation of arts, humanities, and social sciences, which are at the foundation of our global society. These problems signal a dire need to stimulate public debate about the purpose and effectiveness of higher education in the United States.
Amid the refrain that “college is for everyone,” parents and educators are so focused on getting students to the finish line that graduates are left with little guidance or support in how to cross the line from the confines of college into the messiness of adult life.
Barbara Schneider is the president of the American Educational Research Association, professor of education and sociology at Michigan State, and author of The Ambitious Generation (Yale). Richard Settersten is a member of the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood and Public Policy, professor of social and behavioral health sciences at Oregon State, and author of Not Quite Adults (Bantam/Random House).