This litmus test is having an expanding impact on employers and our youth. Created decades ago in the need of job candidates with specific skills, this mantra has morphed with employers into an antiquated job screening method with a social stigma for a whole generation. The college degree has replaced last century’s high school diploma. In the past, high school completion identified basic skills to read, write and show up to work on time. College was for those who could afford it. As the workforce and population on university campuses expanded, the curriculum broadened. The focus by colleges on the elite and finishing skills transformed to an academic agenda increasing unattached to career paths (until very recently). Employers have added more job categories requiring the college diploma. This is not because the jobs require specific skill sets, but instead it is a screening of candidates. The diploma is the focus for colleges, government policy and increasingly employers. Yet employers express dissatisfaction with job readiness of those coming out of college. Something is remiss.
The college diploma represents different things to different people. To the college, completion of degree requirements is a business measurement of success. Government funding rewards colleges accepting and matriculating a broader applicant base despite employability or having developed applicable skills. A major criterion of colleges for government support is based on completion and retention as well as political driven regulatory parameters tied to loan availability, research and other federal programs. Student loans issuance today is a government monopoly. Applications are accessible to all students and awards are issued by colleges based on affordability (not accomplishment). There is no risk to colleges in awarding more debt to students. According to the NY Federal reserve there is a direct correlation to the increase in student debt and government financing to the increase in tuition cost. Over the last 20 years for every dollar increase in funding there has been a correlating 65 cent increase in tuition cost. Government policy is not aligned with any specific outcome or benefit to society other than a broader access to education for more people (not a better one). Policy has had the intent of making education accessible while having the impact of making it less affordable.
For employers, the degree has evolved to screen candidates. Most duties in individual job descriptions have little to do with the college curriculum. Qualifications of a graduate degree represents having mastered specific skills in trade and professional education. For advanced degrees employers have defined the curriculum. For undergraduates a major in a field is increasingly irrelevant with most college graduates not in a career tied to their major. In this regard, the degree is a participation trophy not an assurance of skill development or being career ready. Technical and life skill development is regularly cited as lacking by over 90% of employers in graduating applicants, yet they do little to change legacy curriculum to their specific needs. Employers’ expectations of those receiving undergraduate diplomas has had negligible impact on college curriculum. It is no wonder that without employers defining their desired skills, colleges have been slow to respond.
Increasingly the objectives of a diploma’s value are not in sync. The helicoptering generation of employers, educators, government and parents is fixated on this symbolic achievement as confirmation of matriculating from adolescence to adulthood. We focus our youth to hurry to the finish line of the college degree without perspective of the career pathway and the subsequent challenges in the post degree journey. Many students by the time they graduate today have not investigated or identified careers and have had little personal exposure to job descriptions and responsibilities by the time they graduate. Colleges, conscious of government funding tied to completion and retention do not ally success metrics to the matching of employer needs. Students get academic counselling to adapt their degree (even change it) despite uncertainty of their destiny or career field. This can lead to extending college beyond 4 years. Independently, financial aid is determined and awarded not to reach an outcome or even to be able to afford to pay it back. Instead it is summarily issued to support retention in school even if it takes longer to complete and creates further debt and stress. Without options and limited perspective, graduates take funds not even knowing their interest rate or loan amounts. There is no obligation to inform a student of their debt commitment, annual balance or impact prior to graduation. In our studies over 90% of students don’t know their balance or even who they owe the money to eventually. Few of them know it is not dischargeable. It is no wonder they take the first offered job having not identified their passion or recognizing a major and a career are not necessarily one and the same. Higher job turnover and poor job satisfaction results.
From mentors and teachers to parents and peers, there are many influences on adolescents. Students crave guidance and compassion. For determining majors and financial aid there is no question colleges are conflicted in their advice. Without any relevance to employability, an unintended consequence of seemingly constructive advice in the prioritization of the degree over the experience is a lifetime of debt for a generation.
Past generations while in college focused on long term goals (careers)in the future with patience (training) and accepting sacrifice for others in perseverance. While destiny aiming has always been important, tangible milestones are critical thru understanding purpose at multiple intervals. To many students there is a disconnect and confusion with why memorizing trigonometry formulas is relevant. The American College Health Association in a recent study cited that 54% of college students feel highly stressed while 60% feel lonely and 90% feel exhausted and overwhelmed. Is this whining or a misunderstanding of what is happening with our youth? With addiction soaring, anxiety prescriptions at chart breaking levels and suicide at record levels, we have a digestion crisis with serious growing ramifications. Anxiety of degree pursuit without a purpose is the result.
Recently with a group of parents someone mentioned the stupidest question to ask an 18-year-old (There were many that came to mind). The answer: What do you want as a major? Is this the age to seek an intuitive decision like this for a teen with little work experience in youth and helicoptering parents sheltering consequences of actions? Is it any wonder why in a recent University of Michigan study, Americans younger than 35 for the first time ever have less confidence in their future than those 55 and older? A generation saddled with $1.4 trillion in student debt (a societal burden with no precedent in our history), now look at their future and are confused of their mission, struggling financially and stressed. Ouch!
How can employers and parents help? We do not profess to be experts at parenting. The college experience needs to respond to employers increasingly dissatisfied with student preparedness. It is time to review the paradigm of degree pursuit at all costs:
- There are consequences to actions. Sometimes they are unintended. Employers need to step into the process by defining expectations and pre-requisites that match their screening criteria not just in screening.
- Destiny aiming is important. Long term goals in any ambition are shown to increase perseverance, decrease procrastination, reduce stress and improve health.
- There is no hurry at 18 years old to go to college. There is no data to show any repercussions for pause at that age and change in life. College is not for everyone. The stigma is a parent thing.
- What is the definition of college success? This might be an appropriate time to set definable and tangible goals before spending $100,000 or saddling a 22-year-old with that debt to start life.
- What is the role and value of a degree and experience in career preparedness? Human expertise develops thru experience. Skills become sharper from practice leading to mastering competency.
- Identify talent pipelines creating best practices with clarity of needed skills.
Trophies without understanding the demanding work and perseverance to get there are not fulfilling. Our youth are smart and able but maybe a little less “travelled”. They may need a degree, but with a defined purpose and maybe not right away. Many will go further with the college choice. 30 million Americans have attended college and have no degree. Much of the delinquent student debt resides in this population. If it takes a year of travel or work or independent experience, that may be time well spent. Relationship building and participatory experiences with employment skill context may take some from their comfort zone, but this focus breeds pride, gratitude, genuine compassion and most of all discovery more productively than video games and Facebook relationships. Developing character thru personal relationships breeds happiness and does not take a degree. Employers need these attributes and more life skill screening tools (like past generations) to attract and retain a vibrant employee culture.