When student debt surpassed credit card debt in 2010, exceeding the $1 trillion mark, higher education officials began focusing on how much college graduates owed after commencement — a whopping $26,600 on average, according to the latest statistics.
That figure is expected to rise about 5 percent annually unless institutions take such proactive measures as freezing tuition, streamlining curricula, consolidating departments, reorganizing colleges, and curtailing mission creep — all unpopular on the typical campus — meaning debt is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
That future is challenging for those saddled with lifelong debt before embarking on their careers.
It also effectively has changed how society views higher education, putting the emphasis on career over critical thinking, citizenship and lifelong learning, concepts that previously defined the importance of a college degree.
This is the hitherto undeclared harm that decades of loan-assisted academic expansion — curricular, technological, architectural and financial — has wrought on recent generations, necessitating that every discipline, especially the fine and liberal arts, emphasize placement.
Statistics speak for themselves:
- Between 2000–11, the cost of undergraduate tuition, room, and board rose 42 percent at public institutions and 31 percent at private institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
- The Project on Student Debt reports that 2011 graduates faced a tough job market, resulting in an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent with many more graduates "underemployed, working just part-time or in lower paying jobs that did not require a college education."
- The Institute for College Access and Success disclosed that 13.4 percent of student loan borrowers who began repaying loans in 2009 had defaulted by the end of 2011.
Graduates who default on loans likely will not create jobs as entrepreneurs or contribute to society a lifetime of meaningful work. Also, they are less likely to buy homes and otherwise enhance the economy because of the personal and professional setbacks accompanying poor credit histories.
Hallmarks of higher education — meaningful work and social contributions — are at risk if we in the academy fail to make placement a priority, for without adequate entry-level employment, students will not be able to jump-start careers.
Every department, from anthropology to zoology, can help defray burdensome loans by ensuring graduates are prepared for the workplace. Deans, provosts and presidents can require programs to place more emphasis on placement as part of the institution’s comprehensive assessment and strategic plans.
Here are some best practices from the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University of Science and Technology:
1. Post a transparency page, displaying your placement rates. Persuasive arguments about the importance of your degree no longer suffice. Share facts, even if they are underwhelming. Over time, vow to improve them.
2. Create a career board, listing employment opportunities for your majors. Establish a relationship with companies that hire your graduates, publicize their openings, and direct your students to that site.
3. Profile prosperous alumni on your website, encouraging current students to contact them for career advice. The best advocates of your programs are ones who have earned a degree that played a critical role in their success.
4. Form an advisory council, including your most prestigious alumni. You may be surprised at the success of English, history and philosophy majors who developed critical thinking skills and enjoy fulfilling careers in government, industry and education.
5. Engage alumni and industry professionals in curriculum development, especially assessment, ensuring that your pedagogy is in keeping with career trends and cutting-edge methods.
6. Plan a jobs fair with panel discussions from recent graduates entering the work force. New employees can also inform existing students about networking, job shadowing, and portfolio preparation.
7. Recognize faculty with professional experience and contacts who provide career counseling in addition to curricular advising. Professors who prepare students for the workplace demonstrate the importance of a college degree by helping graduates network with alumni and potential employers.
8. Require an internship before graduation, helping students connect with future employers. An internship doesn’t have to relate to technical, scientific or professional fields; it can include nonprofits, fund-raising, human resources, museum curation — any number of creative or critical positions associated with the arts and humanities. By engaging your alumni, you’ll know the range of jobs and titles that they hold.
9. Publicize a list of internships that past students have enjoyed, showcasing the companies that provided such positions. Use this list to generate scholarship and internship support when fund-raising.
10. Underwrite professorial externships in the summer so that faculty can better provide career advice. Externships also help professors across disciplines update their courses with real-world information.
11. Work with your college’s career center, making students aware of your institution’s employment resources. Staff can help students with mundane tasks, such as writing a résumé or cover letter, or can even provide mock interviews so that students can see the type of presentation they make when job seeking.
12. Work with student organizations to host speakers that advise on employment matters. Often such organizations are affiliated with professional associations that have contacts with government, industry or education. They can help place your graduates.
Many of the above recommendations also apply to students earning master’s degrees in nonprofessional fields who may find themselves owing large sums without the means to repay them. Graduate directors might advise students lacking professional experience to consider adding an internship to their plans of study.
Make no mistake: A college degree, in and of itself, can still prepare learners who go on to create jobs through invention and innovation or who think critically enough to manage large, complex organizations. It also can be argued that a college degree has retained its value as an investment, as graduates typically earn twice as much over the course of their careers as counterparts with only a high school diploma or its equivalent.
Nevertheless, making college affordable again will require more than career planning. However, this is something that we can do without much, if any, additional cost that also pays dividends in alumni and community relations, enrollment and retention, engagement and advising, and fund-raising and assessment.
Those reasons alone are enough to focus on placement so graduates find entry-level positions to help defray debt.
Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School at Iowa State University, also chairs the Contemporary Leadership Committee of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication.
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