Several years ago when we were doing research for our book, Inside the Top Colleges: Realities of Life and Learning in America's Elite Colleges, we surveyed thousands of undergraduates through questionnaires and individual interviews. Our purpose was to get to the heart of the college experience at a variety of selective colleges and universities.
We found that our data correlated nicely with the demographics of all of the campuses in terms of representation of the four undergraduate classes, men and women, financial aid recipients, and racial background. While we anticipated a high incidence of concerns over academic workload, time demands, personal stress, finances, social adjustment and loneliness, and substance abuse, another theme emerged that cut across all classes, genders, races, and scholarship and non-scholarship students. The lack of interest on the part of the faculty and advisors in helping students choose a field of study as part of preparing for life after college turned out to be one of the most frequent topics of concern.
Not knowing what they could and should do to plan for the future was a constant refrain among the undergrads. Whether or not college faculties and administrators are comfortable acknowledging that a majority of students have enrolled because of their belief that a college degree will lead to an attractive and secure career, the fact remains: Some professional level of advisement is an expectation by virtually all young people on campuses today.
We experience firsthand the results of this issue on a daily basis in our offices. Students start calling us at several distinct stages in their college life. The first is toward the end of their sophomore year when they are choosing their field of concentration. This decision point raises all sorts of questions: What do I like to study? What am I good at? What will a major in a particular discipline prepare me for?
The second stage follows quickly toward the end of the junior year, when the final year of college looms and many students decide whether or not to apply to graduate school. If so, they must prepare for entrance exams and target appropriate programs and universities. Confusion and anxiety rise to the surface rapidly at this time.
Senior year brings excitement at completing the degree and worry over what's next. We find many seniors will decide to apply to graduate schools as a non-decision decision, or avoidance of the reality of not knowing what they really want to do.
At each of these critical stages, advisors and faculty can play an essential role in what can become teaching moments for students. Helping them understand how to initiate a search for future opportunities that might suit them based on a self-assessment of unique strengths, personal values, and goals in their adult lives could and should be part of the college's educational process and commitment to its students.
The outcomes: Students are more likely to continue in their college studies rather than leave due to a lack of direction and motivation; they will become satisfied alumni; and they will recommend their college to prospective students with enthusiasm. Most importantly, they will become positive participants and leaders in their communities.
We counsel a large number of recent college graduates who are presently working or studying and who have discovered to their frustration that they are unhappy in their situations. Many state that the nature of the work they are required to handle is of little interest or does not fit with their skill sets. They often refer to the lack of stimulation due to the job itself and the people with whom they work.
These young adults are desperate for advice on career directions and further education to meet their new goals. In most cases they do not feel they can turn to their college for such assistance because they did not have a good experience in getting helpful counseling while an undergraduate, or because they believe their college no longer is interested in helping them.
We strongly encourage institutions to suggest that young graduates contact individual faculty or the career counseling office. What better way to serve the school's future moral and financial supporters?
One of the great ironies of the contemporary higher educational establishment is that it extends noble efforts to make college available to all students irregardless of their socioeconomic background, while not recognizing their need for guidance on course planning and career planning.
A majority of non-traditional students have little frame of reference regarding the multitude of occupations and careers available to them today, both because they do not have role models in their family backgrounds and/or because the world of work is changing at such a rapid pace.
Years ago the then-president of Dartmouth College, John Kemeny, who had developed the early BASIC computer language, told his undergrads that a majority of careers in which they would engage had not yet been invented. He was, of course, perceptive in forecasting the future, but he couldn't have imagined fully the explosive developments technology and a global economy have created. If business leaders, economic forecasters, futurists, and governments are challenged to predict the next issues and developments throughout the economy and world scene, how can a "20-something" student be expected to plan rationally for the future?
Today's student readily recognizes the intended sarcasm of Mark Twain's quip, "All you need in this world is ignorance and confidence, then success is sure." We can attest both to the level of ignorance about the breadth of careers potentially available to college graduates and to their lack of confidence in facing their future life.
One cadre of young adults presumes they will go on to graduate school to prepare for a profession similar to that of their parents or close role models. Typically they apply to business, law, medical, or engineering schools, often not having explored the particular field through in-depth interviewing of active practitioners nor having sat in on graduate classes or talked with students. Furthermore, it is very unlikely that they have undertaken a formal self-assessment of their psychological makeup and aptitudes to determine what kinds of work environments will suit them best and what skills match up well with their natural capabilities.
Many of these young people have the financial support of their families to choose their future direction without grave concern for the debt load they will assume upon graduation. They may also have an extended family network of connections available to them. How many times do we hear students fall back in frustration and fear on the time-worn adage that it's not what you know but whom you know?
The other cadre is a population of non-traditional students. By definition they most often have few or no role models in their family or community of college graduates who have succeeded in careers that might appeal to them. They're under enormous stress due to the mounting financial commitments they face. How can they consider taking time to intern in nonpaying positions during and after college, or choosing a career for which they might be suited but which offers a diminutive salary structure?
We believe colleges and universities must take a concerted, proactive approach to supporting their students in planning for their future life. There is a distinct role for the faculty to play in this arena in addition to those deans and counselors directly responsible for advising undergraduates.
Faculty should be aware of careers for which their subject matter might match well. They should be kept apprised by the career and graduate placement office of employment patterns and programs that would suit some of their students. The faculty should also understand the key traits and skills that consistently result in successful lives and careers.
Many of these attributes can be consciously included in the teaching of a subject. What are they? They include critical thinking and analysis, clear verbal and written communication skills, awareness of the multiple side of any proposition or concept, empathic awareness of the feelings and needs of others, self-discipline mastered through rigorous assignments, rhetoric as a skill in presenting a point of view, and the relationship of the subject under study to the larger community.
The behavioral science faculty should work directly with career counseling staff and the dean's office to understand the fundamentals of multiple intelligences, the varieties of learning styles, and personality assessment tools. We would argue for making a mandatory undergraduate course covering these same areas. Visits from appropriate departmental experts and outside speakers who represent a wide spectrum of careers should be built into these classes.
The career counseling staff and facilities should be large enough to meet the needs of all the institution's students, not just those who initiate an office visit. The office must plan a larger role than that of booking appointments for company and graduate recruiters to come to campus to interview interested students.
The financial aid office should work in tandem with the career office to educate graduates on how to manage their educational loans in the least stressful way and how to manage their finances in general. Of course, like all new initiatives, the senior administration must understand the responsibility of this function and be persuaded to make funding available. They should see this assignment as a responsibility and commitment to the institution's students and graduates, and in the larger context of service to society.
Howard and Matthew Greene are independent education consultants and the authors of Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning. To contact them, visit www.greenesguides.com.