Reducing the Fear of Life After College

Jeff Selingo’s There Is Life After College places too much emphasis on vocational education and not enough on the virtues of the liberal arts.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

America’s students and parents have good reason to fear life after college. Though Bachelor’s degrees are now needed more than ever, over the last 15 years the average wage for someone holding one has declined by 10 percent, and the net worth of those under 35 has gone down by nearly 70 percent since the early 1980s. Employers are using the Bachelor’s degree as a screening device, but neither students nor those hiring them think the degree proves that the person who earned it is ready for the world of work.

Worries about the preparation of college grads for the world of work have been around for a long time. A century ago, business groups and labor unions came together to support a stratified system of high-school education that trained some students for specific tasks, while giving others a broad education that would allow them to continue their studies in college. The movement led to the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which financed vocational education, initially for jobs in agriculture and then in other industries. The goal of separate-but-equal education for vocational and academic students predictably degenerated into protecting wealthy people who wanted a broad education for their offspring, while leaving those in vocational tracks vulnerable to losing their jobs when technology and other economic changes made their specific—and narrow—skill sets obsolete.

Even in the 1960s and ‘70s, now looked back upon by many as the golden era of American higher education, there were plenty of spoofs of egg heads, artists, or protestors who left college campuses only to find that the “real world” had very different expectations for them than did their professors. Many college graduates were proudly critical of this “real world,” and some of them turned out to be instrumental in helping to transform its culture and economy, engaging in protests and supporting progressive change.

The country is currently in another period of economic anxiety in which parents and students wonder whether the disjunction between the campus and the workplace leaves many college graduates unprepared for gainful employment in a hyper-competitive world. The steep increase in the costs of attending college, along with mounting student debt, understandably adds fuel to this fear. Technology has enabled the growth of other “just-in-time” delivery systems of education, those that give the student specific training for a job that is available now. It’s understandable that parents and students are questioning whether a traditional four-year degree should be the default option in today’s world.

In his latest book, There Is Life After College, the journalist and former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education Jeff Selingo tries to send a reassuring message. Addressing students and their parents, he aims to “dispel your fears about life after college” by offering to make sense of the career options out there and giving practical advice on how to find one’s way among them.

In his survey of young adults with at least some college experience, he distinguishes three major groups: sprinters, wanderers, and stragglers. What distinguishes the “sprinters,” who start climbing the career ladder quickly, according to Selingo, is that they choose a major early, have internships while undergraduates, and don’t have high loan levels. Roughly a third of the sprinters are in STEM fields, and half have college-educated parents. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise—in today’s America it’s still important to have connections and high-earning parents.

Selingo emphasizes (like many these days) that what you do in college is typically more important than where you go—a comforting thought in a time of admissions mania and crazy competition to get into elite schools. But is it true? Sure, it’s a better return on investment to go to a less well-known school and do really, really well than it is to go to a highly selective school and do no work at all. But this is clearly not a legitimate comparison. Is it more likely that you will find the internship, be stimulated to work hard in your courses, and get the support you need to succeed academically if you’re at a well-resourced school? For most, the answer is yes.

Selingo makes a happy presentation of the virtues of community colleges and two-year degrees. Yes, there are many fine community colleges across the country, and for some students these are great places from which to launch into a career. However, the data shows that completion rates at most two-year institutions are very low and that the benefits of being at a school with students whose credentials are superior to your own are very powerful. William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, former presidents of Princeton and Harvard, respectively, have been making this argument for years, and newer studies back them up.

Selingo’s book features many valuable stories from his interviews with students who figure out how to thrive in various career trajectories—though his sense of what counts as thriving is too limited by his infatuation with the latest hiring fads at trendy companies. He likes to quote Laszlo Bock, the head of “People Operations” at Google, on the inadequacy of traditional ways of evaluating job candidates. He doesn’t explain that Bock was an international-relations major at Pomona College, an elite (and very wealthy) small liberal-arts school.

While Selingo should know better than to say that the B.A. curriculum today is bound by what schools have offered “for centuries,” he is certainly right to point to the ways that colleges and universities can do a much better job of helping students connect what they learn on campuses to what they will do after graduation. But he goes too far in urging schools to have a much tighter relationship with corporations that claim they can’t afford to train people on the job—and are instead asking colleges to do it for them. As the philosopher John Dewey wrote in an earlier period of economic anxiety: “The kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.”

Like many commentators on higher education, Selingo wants to see it disrupted. The context for the demand that colleges be transformed, though, has less to do with curricula and professors and more to do with rising inequality and the fear of falling behind. I am heartened by Selingo’s observation that “the most successful graduates I found in researching this book were those who could translate what they learned in one context (the classroom) to another that is far different.” As he underscores near the end of his book, this capacity for translation is exactly the goal of liberal education, the kind of learning under so much pressure from those who would reduce higher ed to the just-in-time pursuit of merit badges for acquiring skills.

Instead, what is really needed today is the kind of pragmatic liberal education Dewey called for a century ago: one that wouldn’t be reduced to short-term training, but instead would empower graduates to be engaged citizens. Sure, by preparing themselves for 21st-century jobs, broadly educated graduates can reduce fears about life after college. But as empowered citizens, they can also work to transform an economy and polity now hell-bent on reproducing privilege and poverty.