Should Colleges Focus More on Students' Careers?

At Northwestern, I was a journalism/political science major because I wanted to be a journalist in Washington, DC. But not all of my friends' majors and dream careers lined up so cleanly. I knew theater majors who wanted to be travel writers, and history majors who wanted to work in public health in Africa, and psychology majors who wanted to be sports agents and so on.

One of the nice things about college is that you don't have to plug into a pre-med or pre-law streamline if you don't want to. If you want to study novels for four years, or study philosophy, or learn to write in ancient Greek, you can do that and graduate with the same degree as somebody who's laser-beam focused on turning college into a pre-professional career tutorial.

But in these economic times, with money tight and parents looking harder for a return on investment, schools are feeling the pressure to make college relevant for careers. Is that a good thing?

I think so. From the NYT article:

The pressure on institutions to answer those questions is prompting changes from the admissions office to the career center. But even as they rush to prove their relevance, colleges and universities worry that students are specializing too early, that they are so focused on picking the perfect major that they don't allow time for self-discovery, much less late blooming.

I generally think the "American" approach to liberal arts college education is a little weird. We expect our colleges to be intellectual playgrounds and professional factories. They're designed to touch on a diverse range of material (my distribution requirements mandated at least one Statistics course and one Art History course) and also allow students to dive deep into their major. But trying to instill expertise in this system is a bit like trying to get somebody to eat a lot of one kind of vegetable by putting them in front of a buffet.

And yet. To a certain extent, expertise isn't the point of college at all, and it's not necessarily what employers are looking for. From the article:

The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on "the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,"

If college's want to keep the buffet-style education but also tell parents that they understand how to move their graduates from lecture halls to cubicles, I can think of two fairly simple solutions. First they should expand their acceptance of accredited internships or provide more financial compensation to unpaid internships. A summer at a non-profit think tank in DC is an education in policy, politics and the serpentine navigation of Senate offices. If colleges want to give all their students a leg up in the post-grad world where internships are a requisite, they should step up their internship financing and accreditation.

Second colleges should make it easier to students to streamline the graduation process. Here's one way you could do that. Let's say it normally takes 32 credits to graduate and 16 credits to complete a major. Rather than hold students hostage to an arbitrary smattering of distribution requirements, more colleges could allow something like a super-major where a student can graduate with a 20-credit major and 8 additional classes. In other words, the extra level of specialization would allow him or her to graduate one semester early. That could be an interesting way to reward students for choosing to "deep-dive" in college and save a semester worth of money.