Too many journalists, education reporters or not, have spent too much time and copy space on stories that question the “value” of a college education as a matter of costs as well as preparation for the entry level job market. What they fail to report is that the entry level job market in 2016 is little different from the entry level job market was in 2006 or 1996 or even 1986. College students who want to be employed on or shortly after commencement have to do what they have always had to do. I would like to discuss a few of the myths that have spread as well as explain why they are myths.
A liberal arts education is totally worthless
Any type of education is totally worthless without a direction behind it. The computer science or engineering student who struggled through their curriculum and earned a low GPA for the effort is not assured a job because s/he has completed their degree. The most desired employers, those who offer rotational assignments or defined career paths as well as the higher entry level salaries, do not hire poor performers in the classroom. A recruiter or hiring manager will wonder if that person will also struggle in the workplace. They want to hire the people who are most likely to succeed. That has always been the case since career development advanced as a profession after World War II when colleges and universities expanded to take returning veterans whose educational costs were covered through the GI Bill.
At the same time a liberal arts graduate who has direction can become successfully employed provided s/he has direction. That direction does not need to lead to a profession. Quite often it is a cause or a personal interest that evolved from academics and possibly out-of-class experiences. The key was that the student pursued them while pursuing their degree. I have learned of students who successfully found jobs in politics, non-profit management, the media and small businesses because of their commitment to an idea or ideal. Their education is far from worthless if it led them to work at something that they believe in.
Accounting, Computer Science and Engineering are the “best careers”
The entry level job market for these fields within large global corporations is larger than it is for most other majors for a reason: the current employees in these positions were promoted out of them. Ideally, an entry-level hire with a bachelor’s degree should be capable of handling managerial responsibilities within two years, or they will be asked to leave the firm. Corporate cultures have always been “up and out,” especially in bad economic times. Success requires skills that are not usually taught in an Accounting, Computer Science or Engineering curriculum: the ability to lead a team, delegate work and get along with people. Those who become exceptionally successful move into general management. Those who want to maintain a commitment to their craft would be better off pursing a doctoral degree or starting their own firm around that craft. Both pursuits require commitment and involve risk.
It takes a long time for a college graduate to surpass the earnings of a high school graduate who is the same age.
The college student who has been a full-time student for four to six years has not worked full time, except possibly during summers. The full-time summer experiences plus a part-time job might equal 18 months work experience. The high school graduate who skipped college would have worked 48 months, presuming that s/he found employment as soon as the ink dried on their diploma. The high school graduate who is working will start out ahead if s/he is ambitious and manages to remain employed. That requires an employer to support and reward such ambition over four years. However, major employers have outsourced manufacturing, clerical and back office operations, the highest-paid positions for high school graduates with larger firms, for decades.
The college graduate who has a direction may not earn as high entry level salary as a high school graduate who has worked for four years and s/he might need to learn from someone who did not go to college. Unless they start out running their own firms on Day 1 or are handed significant responsibility in their family’s firm, college graduates always start at the bottom. But the college graduate is likely to have more job security if they become committed to a field that they have a strong interest. The more secure that one is in their field, the higher their income is likely to be.
Ivy Leaguers and graduates of similarly selective schools are in the most demand.
This is true of firms that employ many graduates of these schools. A Penn State or Rutgers graduate, as two examples, will need to demonstrate more financial wizardry to get hired at Goldman Sachs than an Ivy League liberal arts graduate. But keep this in mind: the most desired investment banks and management consulting firms also turn down far more Ivy Leaguers and the like than they hire. Their entry level needs are not that great. They have hundred of employees who intend to stay.
However, there are many other firms that offer similar career paths, and in the long term similar possibilities. The consulting divisions of the “Big Four” accounting firms cast a very wide net that includes flagship state universities, mid-sized Jesuit schools as well as schools such as Case Western or Lehigh that have strong business and engineering programs. One obvious difference between the hiring practices of these larger firms vs. the firms that hire “Ivy first” is that the larger firms appreciate mastery related to the academic major. The firms are more likely to hire an accounting, information systems, supply chain management or industrial engineering graduate than they are to hire a liberal arts graduate. That has always been the case. The firms do not have enough time to train, new hires who lack technical competency. They want to send them on engagements immediately because time is money.
Today’s college graduates who want to go to work are entering challenging times when they join the full-time workforce. However, the graduates of the past also faced the same challenges. College graduates of my generation have been displaced by technology as well as outsourcing. But so have college graduates from generations before and generations after mine.
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