Many are currently questioning the value of pricy college degrees that may or may not lead to well-paying jobs. According to researchers Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, nearly half of college graduates are underemployed, meaning they work in jobs that don’t require a college degree.
Further, though the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that, on average, those with college degrees significantly out-earn those without, it’s possible to find well-paying jobs that don’t require a degree.
The BLS data also suggests that the more you learn, the more you earn, as graduates with master’s and professional degrees consistently out-earn those with only four-year degrees. But statistics don’t have the final say in your destiny.
For example, my doctoral degree doesn’t earn me six figures as a teacher, but I know people who earn multiple six figures with only a four-year bachelor’s degree. I’ve also taught students at community colleges who’ve gone on to out-earn my teaching salary with their associate’s degrees.
So, in some cases, an advanced degree or even a traditional four-year degree isn’t necessarily a golden ticket to success. However, as statistics continue to show higher earnings among college graduates than those without degrees, it’s clear that there’s still much to be gained from attending college. These gains can be amplified with college programs specifically designed to help improve the odds of new grads landing well-paying employment.
Benefits of a College Degree
As sobering as Abel and Deitz’s findings may be, there are still clear benefits to a college degree. Many experts agree that the reason for higher average earnings and significantly lower unemployment rates among college graduates is due to their adaptability to a diverse range of jobs and the greater likelihood that they possess the particular skills employers want.
In fact, adaptability may be one of the most important reasons to seek a college degree, as many of today’s well-paying jobs could be lost to automation in the future. If you’re trained in one particular technical skill, and that job disappears, it may be hard to figure out what to do next. However, the doors to a diverse range of jobs can be opened simply by having a college degree — any degree — as many employers feel the technical aspects of a position can be learned on the job, while many of the skills conferred by an education cannot.
Further, though Abel and Deitz’s research shows that 45% of recent college graduates are underemployed, only 20% of those jobs are in low-skilled positions, and the majority of underemployed graduates are making more than their less-educated counterparts in the same position. Those with degrees are also much more likely to transition to higher-paying jobs once they gain some experience in the workforce. Abel and Deitz discovered that by age 27, only 6.6% of college graduates were still working in low-paying jobs.
College may not be for everyone, but for those interested in pursuing a degree, a college education does, on average, make it more likely that you’ll earn a significantly higher income. And, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, this likelihood increases with each passing year as the income gap between college graduates and those without a degree continues to widen.
What Most Degrees Are Missing
However, despite these apparent benefits, many graduates are confused about how to translate their English or history degree into a career and how to sell themselves to prospective employers — even though employers reportedly seek the very skills these kinds of degrees confer.
Colleges can help bridge this gap by making stronger connections between studies and workplace skills and by providing more direct pathways from education into a career. When colleges do this, they help everyone — themselves, students, and prospective employers — by making it clear exactly what all that education is good for.
Here are a few ways colleges are building bridges from education to career and some things to look for in a school if you’re deciding on one to attend.
The value of internships in today’s workplace is undoubtable, and many colleges and universities are taking note by encouraging student participation in a number of innovative ways. Here are just a few of the benefits of internships:
1. They Can Lead Directly to a Career
I’ve taught students who’ve participated in internships and been offered jobs by the very companies for which they interned. The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) 2017 Job Outlook survey shows the conversion rate of internship to full-time hire is 45.6%.
Internships can be a great way to get your foot in the door at a company you’d like to work for post-graduation. As Jonathan Jones, Head of Investment Talent Development at Point72 Asset Management, explains, many companies use internships as a kind of “talent pipeline” — a way to identify and vet potential job candidates.
2. Employers Prefer Recent Grads With Internship Experience
Even when an internship might not land you an immediate job opportunity, it still boosts your resume and can make a significant difference when it comes time to seek out that first job. NACE’s 2017 Job Outlook survey found that 91% of employers prefer job candidates with work experience, and the majority prefer that experience to be in a related field.
A 2013 survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace had similar findings. This survey found that employers ranked internships as the most important factor, above college reputation, choice of major, and even students’ grades.
Additionally, a 2015 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) reports that 63% of graduates who completed an internship received a paid job offer, whereas only 35% of graduates who didn’t complete an internship received the same.
When it comes to the skills-building aspect of internships, many experts argue that you can’t learn many on-the-job skills during the short timeframe of most internships, which is usually 10 to 12 weeks. But having an internship on your resume can still signal some important things to prospective employers.
According to Jones, the fact that you’ve participated in an internship shows employers you’re focused, committed, and driven — especially if you’ve completed an internship in the field in which you’re applying. Further, top employers in highly competitive fields — such as finance, law, and tech — hire entry-level employees primarily through their internship programs.
3. Internships Can Lead to a Higher Starting Salary
According to the Georgetown CEW report, graduates with paid internship experience received starting salaries 28% higher than those who didn’t intern.
A higher starting salary can have a significant impact on your lifelong finances, as it can mean a greater ability to pay back student loan debt and higher overall lifetime earnings. The slower you pay off student debt, the more you become trapped by compounding interest. And when it comes to earning potential, merit raises are usually calculated based on current earnings, and employers use previous earnings as a starting point for salary negotiations. In other words, starting salary can make a tremendous difference in how much you make throughout your career.
How Colleges Can Help Students Through Internship Opportunities
No matter what field a student chooses, completing an internship gives them a leg up in the job search. Thus, if colleges are serious about helping students transition from education to a career, they must focus on internship opportunities. Here are some ways colleges can do this.
1. Make Them a Graduation Requirement
Though it may be possible to find some internship opportunities wherever you attend school, many colleges and universities are going further by making them a requirement for graduation. For example, Endicott College requires all students to participate in three internship opportunities over the course of four years.
Why three? Research shows the greatest benefit of internships comes from participating in two or more. A 2017 NACE study found that 98% of students who completed three internships had positive career outcomes, meaning they were either employed full- or part-time, self-employed, or enlisted in the military.
2. Offer College Credit for Internships
Few schools require internships for graduation, but many colleges and universities — such as the University of Connecticut — encourage students to participate in internships by granting college credit for them.
3. Create Programs That Link Internships With Career Prep
Employers rank internships as one of the most important things they look for in recent graduates. However, if an internship doesn’t lead directly to a job offer, students can be left confused about what to do next. Colleges can mitigate this by linking internships with academic opportunities to build career readiness skills.
The University of Arizona has created a unique program that combines internships with job skills workshops. Workshops focus on topics like job search and interviewing skills, and students attend supplemental practice labs where they can actively practice these skills, work on their resumes, and attend networking events. This gives students the opportunity to gain the resume-building value of an internship while also learning crucial skills for finding a job after graduation.
Cooperative Education Programs
Colleges such as Northeastern University and Drexel University have leveled up the internship experience by creating cooperative education programs that alternate semesters of academic study with semesters of full-time employment related to students’ career interests.
Cooperative education programs, commonly referred to as co-ops, provide students with valuable, real-world work experience just like internships do. But unlike internships, which are usually completed by students during the summer or part-time while attending classes, co-ops provide students with more in-depth work experience. They can be as short as 12 weeks (one semester) — similar to the average internship — or as long as a full year. They always involve working full-time hours.
Some of the advantages of co-ops over internships include:
1. Greater Job Participation
A longer time investment means students have a greater opportunity to learn valuable job skills. It can also mean they make a more significant impact in their workplace. You’re more likely to be included in a big project during a co-op than an internship, for example.
2. Greater Integration of Academic Studies & Work Experience
Co-ops are overseen by professors and advisors. That means greater integration between academic studies and hands-on experience.
3. Greater Skills-Building Opportunities
Since co-op students have experience working in their fields, they report feeling more confident in their skills and abilities as they transition into the workplace. Northeastern student Tatum Hartwig tells U.S. News & World Report, “It really bolsters up your confidence when you go into an interview and you know that you have experience and firsthand knowledge to back you up.”
All colleges have career services offices where students can get help with writing a resume, applying to jobs, and practicing for interviews. They may also manage internship opportunities, though many colleges have separate internship departments. Good career services offices take things to the next level with a diverse range of networking opportunities, speakers, and conferences.
1. Networking Opportunities
It’s important for students to take advantage of as many networking opportunities as possible. Although study results vary, PayScale reports anywhere from 70% to 85% of jobs are filled through networking.
Career services offices can help students establish the kinds of connections that can lead to future job offers by linking them with alumni and hosting networking events. For example, Ohio University not only connects students with alumni but also hosts a “conference” of workshops designed to help students make the most of these connections.
Networking doesn’t have to be restricted to alumni, however. Some colleges also offer events to help connect students with businesses and employment opportunities. Unlike a career fair, which involves students rotating around a room of potential employers filling out job applications, these are less structured, meet-and-greet events. One example is Hillsdale College’s “The Source” event, which connects students with local businesses.
Colleges frequently host leaders in their respective fields, from CEOs to research scientists to novelists. Speakers share insights about life and career options after college, and students have the opportunity to learn from individuals they might never have had access to otherwise.
Occasionally, colleges even host speaker events that bring multiple speakers together. One such event is the Smarter Faster Revolution, sponsored by JP Morgan Chase & Co. and Axios. This event traveled around the country in 2018, visiting such colleges and universities as Howard University, NYU, Columbia University, and UCLA. It featured different speakers at each college, but all stops included high-profile CEOs, politicians, and celebrities, providing a unique opportunity for students to hear insight from and ask questions of industry leaders.
A conference combines networking, speakers, and even job recruiters all in one place. Students can attend keynote talks, panels, and workshops hosted by speakers on a variety of career-related topics, as well as network with speakers and job recruiters.
For example, Kent State University hosts an annual Arts Career Conference that brings together educational workshops on how to build a career in the arts, a keynote speaker, and a closing networking event.
Some colleges and universities are creating innovative programs that combine classroom theory with hands-on application. Employers highly value this kind of project-based learning. Research by the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) found that 73% of employers believe that requiring college students to complete an applied learning project will better prepare them for careers.
Here are two of the significant benefits of experiential learning:
1. It Can Significantly Increase Learning
Experiential education, or hands-on learning, helps students transform knowledge into practical application. Extensive research, such as a 2014 study by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), has proven that lecture-style teaching isn’t the best way to facilitate learning. When students can apply their academic studies to active participation in real-world situations, learning increases significantly.
Experiential education has been commonplace in vocational and pre-professional programs for many years, but field-based learning can also have benefits in the liberal arts. For example, Ohio Wesleyan University has created an innovative program that combines academic study with hands-on application through a variety of study abroad programs, research, independent projects, and internships. OWU music students have traveled to Italy to participate in master classes and workshops on music theory and composition. History students have traveled to Normandy to study the events of WWII, and psychology students have traveled to Northern Ireland to research how Catholic-Protestant sectarianism compares to racism issues in the United States.
2. It Can Help Translate Academic Skills to Workplace Environments
Experiential learning isn’t only “learning by doing.” It can also help you apply concepts you’ve learned in the classroom to real-world situations. One of the challenges of hiring college graduates, according to employers, is that academic theory learned in classrooms doesn’t always translate to the workplace environment.
Though college courses are designed to encourage critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, and effective communication skills, more than half of employers who participated in the 2013 Chronicle of Higher Education study reported difficulty finding recent graduates with adequate competency in these skills.
The problem isn’t that college courses aren’t emphasizing and developing these skills, but rather that the academic context and workplace context are different. As Julian L. Alssid of the Workforce Strategy Center tells the Chronicle, educators think of these skills “in a purely academic context,” while employers want “book smarts to translate to the real world.” Thus, the problem isn’t necessarily a lack of these skills but the inability to apply them in different contexts.
This can be the difference between learning French words in a classroom and trying to order off the menu at a café in Quebec. Interacting with real French speakers, who talk faster and fill their conversation with slang and regional idioms, is an entirely different experience from practicing vocabulary in the classroom.
The same goes for applying problem-solving skills to a project based on academic theory versus a real-life situation. The challenge for educators, then, is to design learning environments that enable students to take what they learn and apply it to various contexts.
Recognizing this, some colleges, such as Worcester Polytechnic Institute, require students to participate in projects specifically designed to solve real problems or address real needs. For example, Emily Chretien, a 2018 WPI graduate, traveled with classmates to Namibia to observe female waste collectors who spent long hours separating recyclables and selling them to processors to earn wages 30% below the poverty line. Through their research, Emily’s team discovered the women could earn a higher income by processing the recyclables on site using a small-scale solar-powered plastics and aluminum shredding machine.
This type of project is more than classroom learning; it has the potential to make a significant impact on the lives of real individuals, the same as real-life problem-solving would impact a real-world workplace.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education survey, more than half of employers had trouble finding recent college graduates qualified for job openings at their company, but it wasn’t specific technical skills employers felt students were lacking. According to the report, “When it comes to the skills most needed by employers, job candidates are lacking in written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem-solving.”
Though many college courses are specifically designed to develop these skills, translating them from an academic context to a workplace context might be at the root of the problem. One way to deal with this skills gap is experiential learning; another lies within the courses themselves.
Colleges and universities can help students transition into the workplace by focusing on developing sought-after workplace skills in classroom environments in the following ways.
1. Offering Courses That Translate Academic Skills Into Workplace Contexts
One step colleges can take is to offer more courses that emphasize the development of traditional academic skills, such as good written and oral communication skills, and give them workplace applications.
For example, I currently teach a “Writing for the Workplace” course that focuses on academic skills — such as good sentence structure, grammar, writing mechanics, argumentation, and the use of evidence — and applies these skills to workplace communications such as memos, reports, and presentations.
2. Balancing Experiential Learning With Traditional Academic Courses
The real-world experience provided by internships, co-ops, and other forms of experiential learning give new graduates the knowledge, skills, and experience with real-life problem-solving that college classes cannot.
However, we’re so hyper-focused on career success that we often overlook the kind of education that actually makes a job candidate a good hire — namely, one that fosters the skills of critical thinking, oral and written communication, and creative problem-solving, as well as making a well-rounded individual with knowledge in a variety of subjects.
Though courses like “Writing for the Workplace” can be invaluable in developing crucial workplace skills, a balance between traditional liberal arts courses and hands-on, theory-to-practice work seems best for developing the kinds of skills employers want.
The Importance of a Broad Education
According to 2014 research by the AAC&U, 80% of employers feel that all students, vocational or otherwise, should obtain a broad education. This is likely because the skills developed in such an education — effective communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving — are sought by 93% of employers, according to the AAC&U study.
Randall Stross, author of “A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees,” tells Inside Higher Ed that “conscientious students in the liberal arts can demonstrate great skill in many things: learning quickly, reading deeply, melding information from diverse sources smoothly, collaborating with others effectively, reasoning logically, writing clearly.” That is precisely what most employers seek.
Unfortunately, the rush to make education pay off in concrete ways has resulted leaving behind the humanities in favor of an increasingly narrow focus on vocational education. This has led to a generation of students who aren’t able to think critically or write clearly.
Writing, especially, seems to be the skill most underdeveloped in recent graduates, even though a vast majority of employers — 80.3%, according to 2017 research by NACE — seek candidates with strong writing skills.
According to English professor Verlyn Klinkenborg the problem is that writing isn’t a practical skill. In other words, you can’t master it by taking one or two writing courses. Rather, the ability to write well is directly related to the ability to think critically, a skill that’s developed through the broader work of humanities courses, which encourage students to engage in conversation with the world around them and the totality of the human experience.
Ironically, the intense focus on narrow education-to-career pathways is the result of a belief on the part of many students, parents, and policymakers that this is what will make students employable. Yet research by the AAC&U has shown that four out five employers believe that all students — including vocational and pre-professional students — should acquire a broad education.
Understanding the value of learning across the disciplines, schools such as Virginia Tech require all undergrads to choose a third of their credits from their Curriculum of Liberal Education. Additionally, schools such as Brown University and George Mason University focus on both “writing across the curriculum” and “writing in the disciplines” to develop students’ ability to communicate convincingly in any context.
It’s worth noting that Harvey Mudd College, the college that produces the highest-earning graduates according to PayScale, may turn out consistently high-earning engineers, but at its heart, it’s a liberal arts college.
3. Helping Students Translate Academic Skills to Workplace Skills
Though traditional academic courses provide valuable learning experiences, the translation problem remains. Even when courses develop the skills employers are looking for, it’s not always clear to students how to apply those skills in a workplace setting or how to sell themselves when it comes to finding a job.
For example, Jacquelyn M. Lomp, an English major who graduated from the University of Connecticut, was initially unsure how the skills she learned in Norse mythology courses applied to her internship writing newsletters for the university’s pharmacy department. Only after college, when she went to work in the “real world,” did she realize her academic skills were exactly the thing she needed in the workplace. Both her professional work and her courses, she says, “required intense focus and the ability to analyze language for deeper meaning.”
Students need to be given a vocabulary by teachers, advisors, and career services professionals about the specific skills their education brings to the table.
Professors can help students develop the necessary skills employers are looking for by specifically designing courses to encourage critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Much of traditional education focuses on lecture-style courses where students sit in a classroom and merely absorb information to spit back on a test. This kind of teaching doesn’t encourage students to directly engage with learning or develop good communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.
However, teaching methods that require conversation, creative work, and interaction can not only engage students but also develop essential workplace skills. Thus, teaching methods should include the following:
1. Student Engagement
Incorporating active learning techniques into classroom teaching increases student engagement. For example, I teach a “Comparative Religions” course that’s required by several majors because of the recognition that graduates will be employed in an increasingly global and multicultural workplace where they will need to interact with others of different religious and cultural backgrounds.
When I first started teaching this course, I taught it the only way I knew how: through traditional classroom lectures. It didn’t take me long to realize that although some students were engaged and interested, many more were bored, and some even fell asleep occasionally.
Moreover, while the ability to memorize facts for a test may be a mark of academic achievement, it didn’t really meet the objectives of the course, which were to get students to interact with different cultures and viewpoints.
So, I altered the way I taught the course to involve more discussion, which included interaction with other students; show-and-tell presentations that allowed students to get glimpses into the lives of classmate’s different backgrounds and personal experiences; extra-credit field trips; and personal research projects.
The result was night and day when it came to student engagement. Although this kind of switch may not work for every course or every lesson, the 2014 PNAS study showed that active learning significantly increases student performance and decreases the failure rate by 55%. Though this study focused on science, engineering, and mathematics, the humanities, which are all about focusing on the human experience, can benefit as well.
2. Workplace Skills
More important than GPAs are the lifelong effects of learning, particularly when it comes to developing creativity, critical thinking, and interpersonal and communication skills. Though a study of any subject ought to encourage these, and many experts have praised the value of higher education for developing students’ ability to think, “thinking” doesn’t take place when students are merely asked to memorize.
Real thinking — critical, creative, and insightful — happens when students are asked to actively engage with the material through challenging biases and assumptions within a text, applying knowledge in context, supporting an argument in a research paper, and interacting with teachers and classmates.
If colleges and universities really want to adequately prepare students for jobs after graduation, rethinking traditional, lecture-style teaching is in order. There is still some place for it, such as when instructors simply need to impart information to frame a project or discussion. But as Alfie Kohn, author of 14 books on education, parenting, and human behavior, notes, that the real purpose of education isn’t about transmitting ideas; it’s about discovering ideas.
Real critical thinking implies innovation through challenging existing beliefs. Problem-solving — a skill sought by 77% of employers, according to NACE’s 2017 Job Outlook survey — requires taking information and discovering a new way to interact with it. None of this is required of students listening to a lecture.
NACE also reports that the top attribute employers look for is the ability to work as part of a team. Traditional lectures only require students to sit and listen; there’s little to no interaction with classmates. Courses that emphasize active learning techniques such as discussion and projects, however, can help develop this skill in students by requiring them to interact constructively with each other and engage with material together. Group projects, specifically, can teach students how to plan, strategize, and work together as part of a team, how to settle differences, and how to delegate work — all of which are skills required in the workplace.
Other Career-Connection Benefits College Provides
In addition to the curricular and extracurricular components colleges and universities can offer, the natural social environment of college encourages the additional development of necessary traits that are crucial to landing and keeping a job. These include:
Though children grow up attending school and interacting with peers, some of the most important socialization often doesn’t take place until they’re forced to rely on themselves. College can provide an important halfway point between full reliance on parents and complete self-reliance, encouraging students to develop the deeper self-awareness and self-esteem that come from managing their own lives and solving their own problems.
According to 2015 research by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), social and emotional learning are essential to career success. AIR finds that more teachers and schools are incorporating social and emotional skill-building into classroom and school-wide activities, but even just the natural environment of the average college campus can help build a student’s social skills.
College students also have the opportunity to interact with students of diverse backgrounds, which prepares them to navigate an increasingly global and diverse workplace.
College can help build the maturity required for landing and keeping any job. Not only must job applicants convey confidence that they can do the job, but they must also have the maturity required to continue performing on the job, interacting with others, problem-solving as needed, and communicating with bosses and colleagues.
College can be a testing ground that forces students to commit to a task in a way they may not have needed to in high school. The workload of many college courses is typically heavier and more intense than students may be used to, and success in college depends on developing greater focus and commitment. Employers often cite this as the primary reason jobs continue to require college degrees.
Committing to success with coursework also requires time management skills and could include the use of collaboration, communication, and leadership skills, depending on the course and task. All of these are top skills employers look for, according to a 2018 LinkedIn survey.
And while committing to success in college fosters independence, it can also mean knowing when to ask for help, which is another hallmark of maturity. Professors have office hours for a reason, and I can personally attest that those students who take advantage of them are often more successful than those who don’t.
3. Ability to Interact With Colleagues & Bosses
Closely tied with socialization and maturity is the ability to interact both with peers and superiors. College students are frequently asked to interact with classmates, a skill that translates into the ability to interact with colleagues in the workplace.
Through participation in class projects, group discussions, and extracurricular activities, college students have many opportunities for the kind of peer-to-peer social interaction that’s invaluable in developing the interpersonal skills sought by employers. In addition to being a testing ground for students’ commitment and drive, college is unquestionably a social testing ground, where they must learn how to navigate differences among peers.
College also requires regular interaction with professors, a skill that can translate into interacting with bosses in the workplace. Students must learn how to follow instructions but also on occasion question them, whether through clarification or challenge. In the workplace, it’s important to know how to stick up for yourself without going so far as to lose your job.
For example, I’ve had plenty of students who have successfully renegotiated a grade I’ve given on an assignment. When a student comes to me with a well-thought-out argument for why I should reconsider, I’m often moved to do that very thing, or at the very least to give them a second chance on an assignment.
On the other hand, every once in a while, I have a student who approaches me with a combative attitude, a failure to take any personal responsibility, and an unwillingness to accept the blame for their bad grade. That kind of attitude never inspires me to rethink a grade. It’s also unlikely to bring success in the workplace.
College students, therefore, can learn a lot about interacting with future bosses by first interacting with their professors.
Colleges and universities can provide an invaluable first step that launches students into their careers. Though some may argue that traditional education doesn’t adequately prepare students for the workplace, the vast majority of employers seek job candidates with the very skills college classrooms help to develop.
Further, statistics continue to show that college graduates, on average, out-earn their less-educated counterparts no matter their degree. While some employers are opening up to qualified candidates who don’t have degrees, many jobs continue to require a college degree for entry-level qualification. Moreover, a degree — especially one that covers a broad range of subjects — can make you more adaptable in a shifting economy.
That said, colleges and universities can do more to ease the transition from education to career. For example, though many employers prize the skills developed by a liberal arts degree, English or history majors can graduate with little idea what to do with their hard-earned degrees. Colleges can help by developing a greater awareness of opportunities and a richer vocabulary for translating academic proficiencies into crucial workplace skills.
Finally, students are not always aware of the opportunities colleges offer and may not know how to take advantage of them. Here again, colleges can help by developing more awareness and course integration.
Regardless, both colleges and students need to think carefully about education and how it pays off in terms of employment and lifelong learning. That means responding to the rapidly shifting economy of the 21st century with new and innovative models for education.
In what ways do you think colleges can better help prepare students for their careers?