College Students Say They Want a Degree for a Job. Are They Getting What They Want?

By Jeffrey J. Selingo | The Washington Post |

College is increasingly seen by high school students as a means to an end: getting a job. Since the Great Recession, surveys of teenagers — and the choices they are making about their college majors — show that higher education has become less about preparing for life or learning something that interests undergraduates and much more about securing employment.

A recent Harris Poll found that two-thirds of 14- to 23-year-old students want a degree to provide financial security, ranking it above all else when it comes to their motivation for going to college. At the same time, fewer students are majoring in the humanities, according to newly released government data. More flock toward science, technology, engineering and math majors — known collectively as STEM — that they think will burnish their employment prospects.

While unemployment among recent college graduates is at historic lows, underemployment is not. Some 40 percent of college graduates are underemployed, meaning they are in jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.

Colleges have been slow to react to this shift in the mind-set of students, largely resisting efforts to make campuses look and act more like trade schools — and for good reason. Higher education serves multiple missions, among them to prepare citizens for the world, conduct research and assist adolescents in becoming adults. But those missions have become secondary to most students and their families in an era of rising tuition and stagnant wages. Without being gainfully employed, newly minted graduates will find it difficult to enjoy the broad benefits that higher education provides.

That’s why college leaders and faculty members are beginning to recognize they need — at the same time — to prepare students for employment and provide them with a broad education for life. Some schools, such as Emory University, are adding degree programs that combine applied mathematics and statistics with traditional liberal-arts majors. Others, such as the University of Utah, are giving seniors an opportunity to earn certificates before graduation in fields such as data analysis and instructional design.

Those efforts seem to be paying off. Employers are starting to take notice that students are coming out of college armed with skills needed in the job market. Some 60 percent of business executives and hiring managers agree students have the knowledge to succeed in entry-level positions, according to a survey released this week by the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Read more at The Washington Post.