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.