3 Ways We Can Help College Students Find Their Way in the New Economy

(Guest blogger Jeffrey J. Selingo is author of the New York Times bestseller, “There Is Life After College.”)

In June, I hosted a conversation with Andy Chan, vice president for innovation and career development at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Chan is a rock star in the field. He has raised millions of dollars to expand Wake Forest’s career services and has been featured in The New York Times Magazine for setting an example of what a career center needs to offer in the 21st century job market. Many other institutions are now following his lead and remaking their career centers into resources that students use from the first day of their freshman years.

As we discussed, it’s increasingly clear that beyond just earning a degree, the decisions students make in college, from choosing a major and course to finding internships, are playing a larger role in their post-graduation lives.

Employers don’t trust that the degree comes embedded with the “soft skills” they are looking for in today’s college graduates, such as problem solving, critical thinking, communications, and working in teams. An analysis of millions of job ads by the workforce analytics firm Burning Glass found that employers requiring a bachelor’s degree list more soft skills than technical skills among the set of requirements.

Andy and I also discussed how as educators and employers, we can better help young adults transition into their lives after graduation. We agreed that we need better ways to measure and demonstrate learning in college so that employers can be assured graduates are equipped to perform in a job. We agreed the quality of the technology educators use plays a big role. A modern system, such as Workday Student, allows institutions to better track student engagement and success, both inside and outside the classroom.

For a new book I wrote on this subject, “There Is Life After College,I surveyed 752 young adults aged 24-27 across the U.S. to find out how the experiences they had in school led them to where they are today. According to the survey, twenty-somethings transition into adulthood in one of three ways: they can be Sprinters, Wanderers, or Stragglers.

Sprinters (35% of the young adults surveyed) jump right into their careers after college or are on a path to a successful launch after completing additional education. Wanderers (32%) take their time—about half of their 20s—to get their start in a career. Stragglers (33%) spend most of their 20s trying to get their start.

Whether someone becomes a Sprinter, Wanderer, or Straggler, the journey through their 20s depends largely on three factors that colleges and universities can track and greatly influence:

Minimizing student loan debt. The more loan debt students amass in college, the less flexibility they have when they graduate. Loan payments will dictate their lives. Salary—not cultural fit, happiness, or career advancement—becomes the driving decision in choosing a job. Debt rules out internships that could lead to a top-notch job or living in pricey cities with a dynamic labor market. It also reduces the chances that a new graduate will start a business, according to research by Gallup.

Too often students don’t realize the impact their decision to take on too much debt at 18 will have when they start out in their careers four years later.

I found that 43 percent of Sprinters had less than $10,000 worth of debt at commencement, far short of the $37,000 average debt of the Class of 2016.

For many students, debt is inevitable. But too often students don’t realize the impact their decision to take on too much debt at 18 will have when they start out in their careers four years later. At that point, they take a job just to pay the bills, thinking it will be short-term gig. But that six-month plan turns into a year, and then two years. They become Wanderers, and now in their mid-20s, they’re competing for jobs with more recent Sprinter graduates.

Building more experiential learning into the curriculum. The second biggest factor that determines how twenty-somethings launch into the real world is the number of internships and experiential learning opportunities they have in college.

Internships are now a critical cog in the recruiting wheel for employers and how new college graduates increasingly enter the workforce for the first time.

Today employers hire 50 percent of the interns who had worked for them before graduation. At large companies and in some industries the share of interns who get full-time offers is closer to 75 percent.

Internships are now a critical cog in the recruiting wheel for employers and how new college graduates increasingly enter the workforce for the first time. My poll found that 79 percent of Sprinters had at least one internship in college, compared with 47 percent of Wanderers, and just 24 percent of Stragglers. Nearly half of the Sprinters are employed at a company where they interned, compared with only 13 percent of Wanderers.

Undergraduates can no longer wait until the second semester of their senior year to start their job search. Companies want to try someone out first. I heard from a dozen career counselors on campus how this is moving up the recruiting calendar for companies and organizations, where they want to wrap up hiring of summer interns the previous fall. As Pat Rose, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s career center told me, there was a time when 50 employers came to recruit for interns. Now they have 180.

Earning a credential. A college degree still matters. There are 12 million twenty-somethings with some college credits, yet no degree. Indeed, those in their 20s make up the largest share of the 31 million adults in the U.S. who left college without a degree. In many ways, these young adults are no better off financially than high-school graduates who never attempted college at all. Employers, after all, don’t advertise they want “some college.” They want a degree.

Still, a degree no longer guarantees a high-skilled, high-wage job. To succeed in the long term, students need to leave college with more than just a diploma. Not only do colleges and universities need to provide students with a mixture of experiential learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom, but they need to better track and guide students through their undergraduate years so that they can be better prepared to navigate their lives after graduation.

 Join Jeffrey J. Selingo and F. Alexander, President of Louisiana State University, as they discuss more about how modern technologies can help higher education institutions solve their business challenges in their hot-topic panel at the Educause conference, Oct. 25-28, in Anaheim, Calif.