Must All Graduates Wander Aimlessly in Their Twenties? New Book Offers Helpful Advice
A review of Jeff Selingo's insightful new book, There is Life After College
Until recently, a bachelor’s degree was a sure ticket to social mobility and a promising career. But today’s graduates face unprecedented headwinds in the form of declining wages, ballooning student debt, and greater competition for fewer jobs. That’s the case journalist Jeff Selingo makes in an insightful new book, There is Life After College (HarperCollins). “The plight of today’s young adults,” writes Selingo, “is a result of a longer-term shift in the global workforce that is having an outsized impact on people in their twenties who have little work experience.”
Selingo presents his case persuasively. Young adult unemployment is at its highest point in four decades, peaking at 9 percent a few years ago. Of arguably greater consequence, nearly half of college graduates in their twenties are underemployed, beating out their less educated peers for barista and clerical jobs. With a glut of supply, employers can be choosy, leading to the increasingly common “unpaid internship” expectation, and other forms of “try before you buy” hiring. To make matters worse, student debt loads among recent graduates are at an all-time high and starting salaries are barely budging. While Mom and Dad once beamed when their child received his or her diploma, the uncertainty and instability of the early professional years now give parents reason to worry afresh.
Sprinters, Wanderers, Stragglers
A large survey Selingo commissioned found that young adults fall into three groups: Sprinters, Wanderers, and Stragglers. Each made up about one-third of respondents. Sprinters get off to a fast career start either after their B.S., B.A., or right after earning an advanced degree. Wanders take about half their twenties to get a start in their career. Stragglers take almost a decade. Not surprisingly, Sprinters had the greatest level of certainty regarding their major going into college, the least amount of student debt, and the greatest amount of professional experience (mainly internships) prior to graduating.
How can students increase their odds of success? Students should practice curiosity and commit to lifelong learning rather than simply trying to earn a degree with as little effort as possible. They should develop an expertise, take risks, and learn to persevere in the midst of adversity (buzzwords include “grit” and “resiliency”). They should cultivate technical literacy, regardless of their major (particularly spreadsheet manipulation and Power Point presentations). Students must grow in their comfort with ambiguity, rather than expecting to be spoon-fed cookie-cutter instructions for all their work-related tasks. They should be willing to accept critical feedback and learn from others, especially mentors.
Selingo champions pre-college gap years for those who have yet to discover their academic interests and who might otherwise blindly follow the herd from high school to college (like the “excellent sheep” William Deresiewicz described in his recent book). Many associate gap years with expensive travel to exotic locations, the purview of wealthy teens like Malia Obama. Selingo explains that gap years can come with smaller price tags and a focus on academic preparation — a huge need considering the lack of college readiness on the part of many high school graduates, particularly those from lower socioeconomic classes. This is important because an overlooked problem in the discussion of student debt is the fact that college dropouts with low debt loads are among the most likely to default on their debt. Why? Even a little debt is debilitating if your employment options are slim to none. So boosting the graduate rate among disadvantaged students through an academic or strategic work-related gap year (exploring a few possible career options) strikes me as a very strategic opportunity.
Selingo spends a few chapters discussing the importance of a college’s location. Urban colleges offer students the advantage of proximity to many potential employers. For example, Selingo writes, film majors would do well to consider Los Angeles or New York City. Computer science? San Francisco or San Jose. Music? Nashville, New York City, or Los Angeles. Many families will be surprised by Selingo’s advice that even freshmen should be actively pursuing internships. But Selingo is right: A student who collects two or three different internship experiences during college has a leg up on the market relative to a student with only one (or no) internship on her resume. And a variety of complementary work experience gives a young adult greater confidence about what to pursue after college.
The chapter on how employers hire will be of interest to parents and students alike. Applicant tracking software now automatically eliminates candidates who don’t use key words in their resume or cover letter. Selingo advises graduates “parse the key words from the job ad, especially those words not commonly found in job ads because they can indicate skills that are important to an employer. Then use those key words in your cover letter and résumé.” Employers today are less involved in training new hires so they’ve raised the bar on what a student must know (and be able to do) on Day 1 — which goes back to the importance of graduates having developed skills through prior work or volunteer experience.
The chapters on redesigning the bachelor’s degree and education delivered just in time will be of interest to educators, administrators, and others who follow the inner-workings of the higher education world. Over the last decade or two the “traditional” college student, who starts at age 18 and graduates at 22, has become the minority. The majority now take five or more years to finish, often accumulating college credits at more than one institution while juggling a job (or two) and family duties. Selingo envisions an “easy-on/easy-off lane” allowing these kinds of “less traditional” students to pursue their education for 1-2 years, take a job, then come back after a few years “when their skills need an upgrade before returning to the workforce.”
Twentysomethings today are experiencing a tremendous amount of flux and instability in their post-college years. Those who wish to understand this better, and perhaps help their loved ones launch into adulthood with less stress and greater success, will gain much from reading There is Life After College.
Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor at California Baptist University and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).