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Why Helping Graduates Find A Good First Job Is Not Enough

Chris Hazell / Abound and Colleges of Distinction

It seems that the only metric used to measure the value of a college or university is whether its students get a good job upon graduating. This is, of course, a valid and important concern. When students (and their parents) are spending tens of thousands of dollars on an education, it’s only reasonable to expect it will pay off in the form of a good job.

Such an expectation became an especially huge concern after the recession a decade ago. Many of those who had invested in higher education graduated only to become unemployed or underemployed, ultimately ending up in jobs that didn’t require their expensive bachelor’s degree. Although things have gotten better since then, The Atlantic reports that even today “a notable number of college students still wind up unemployed (almost 6 percent in 2016) or underemployed (almost 13 percent in 2016) upon graduating.”

On top of that, a Forbes article details that “borrowers in the Class of 2017, on average, owe $28,650, according to the Institute for College Access and Success” and that consumer loan debt is the second highest type of consumer debt (behind mortgage debt) in the country.

A Degree—By and Large—Is Still Worth It

While rising student loan debt and the persistent difficulty in obtaining a degree-relevant job are still an issue, college is nevertheless worth the investment; The New York Times cites that a degree provides a mean $365,000 lifetime benefit for men and $185,000 for women. These numbers also account for all direct and indirect college costs over a lifetime.

Institutions of higher ed certainly need to address how students pay for school and get good first jobs. But it’s also important for them to communicate to prospective students and their parents the value of a college degree over a lifetime. In other words, to communicate that it’s an investment intended to pay off over several decades and shouldn’t be judged solely by the outcomes just three months after a student graduates.

The truth is, like all worthwhile things in life, it takes time, patience, and effort to find work that is meaningful and engaging. Colleges do have a responsibility to help students get a good job that can help them start paying back their loans, but it’s shortsighted to expect a 23-year-old’s first job out of school to immediately pay off their debt. It’s been proved over and over again through in-depth research that college graduates, on average, make more money and have more career options than those without degrees.

The World of Work Is Drastically Changing

Another reason institutions need to communicate the lifelong value of a degree—as opposed to merely its value in finding a first job—is that many entry-level positions today may not exist tomorrow. It’s possible that as high as 50 percent of current jobs may be gone by 2030 due to automation and other technologies.

But this is precisely what makes a college education so valuable in today’s shifting world of work. It helps students hone their creative and critical thinking skills, forging them into flexible and innovative workers who can adapt to an uncertain future and still be successful.

The loss of lower-level jobs means that the future of work will require skills that cannot be automated—creativity, critical thinking, empathy, leadership, collaborating with others, etc.—the exact skills that colleges and universities set about instilling in their students.

It also means institutions need to talk about the skills they provide beyond the practical. Yes, institutions need to be able to give students necessary practical skills, be that in finance, business, or engineering, but a myopic focus only on practical and technical skills lessens the real value of an education.

A college isn’t a trade school, and it isn’t just about offering students “marketable” job skills. It’s about forming creative and flexible individuals who can thrive not just by getting a good and well-paying job out of school, but also by doing meaningful work that makes a difference in the world over the course of a lifetime.

Higher Ed Needs to Change the Conversation

It’s not enough for schools to promise students a first job and the ability to pay back their loans (as important as those are!). Those should be givens. Instead, institutions need to communicate through their marketing story that what makes a college education truly valuable is that it can make for a better life—not just a first job. And now, with our shifting and ever uncertain world of work, that message is more important than ever.

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