Over the last few weeks, I’ve been wrestling with a couple of data trends and their accompanying narratives that seem pretty important for colleges like ours. However, unlike most posts in which I pretend to have some answers, this time I’m just struggling to figure out what it all means. So this week, I’m going to toss this discombobulated stew in your lap and hope you can help me sort it all out (or at least clean up some of the mess!).
First, the pressure on colleges to prepare their students to graduate with substantial “work readiness” appears to be at an all-time high. The Gallup Organization continues to argue that employers don’t think college graduates are well-prepared for success in the workplace. Even though there is something about the phrase “work readiness” that makes me feel like I just drank sour milk, we have to admit that preparing students to succeed in a job matters, especially when student loan debt is now such a large, and often frightening, part of the calculus that determines if, and where, a family can send their kids to college. Put all this together and it’s no wonder why students overwhelmingly say that the reason they want to go to college is to get a good-paying job.
Underneath all of this lies a pretty important assumption about what the world of work will be like when these students graduate. Student loans take, on average, 21 years to pay off, and the standard repayment agreement for a federal student loan is a 10-year plan. So it would seem reasonable that students, especially those who take out loans to pay for college, would anticipate that the job for which college prepares them should in most cases outlast the time it takes for them to pay off their loans. I’m not saying that everyone thinks this through completely, but I think most folks are assuming a degree of stability and income in the job they hope to obtain after earning a college degree, making the loans that they take out to pay for college a pretty safe bet.
But this is where it gets dicey. The world of work has been undergoing a seismic shift over the past several decades. The most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that, on average, a person can expect to have 12 jobs between the ages of 18 and 50. What’s more, the majority of those job changes occur between the ages of 18 and 34 – the same period of time during which one would be expected to pay off a student loan. Moreover, between 2005 and 2015, almost all of the jobs added to the economy fit into a category called “alternative work.” This category of work includes contract labor, independent work, and any sort of temporary job (in addition to the usual suspects, think Turo, Lyft, or TaskRabbit). Essentially, these are jobs that are either spun as “providing wonderful flexibility” or depressingly described as depending on “the whim of the people.” As with so many other less-than-attractive realities, someone put a bow on it and labeled this whole movement “the gig economy” (sounds really cool except there’s no stage lighting or rock and roll glamor). It’s no surprise that the gig economy presents a rather stark set of downsides for individuals who choose it (or get sucked into it by circumstances beyond their control).
So what does all of this mean for colleges like ours that are (whether we like it or not) obligated to focus a lot of our attention on preparing students for a successful professional life? I don’t have many great answers to this one. But a couple of questions seem pretty important:
- To what degree are we responsible for ensuring that our students are financially literate and can manage through the unpredictability that seems likely for many early in their career?
- What knowledge, skills, or dispositions should we prioritize to help our students thrive in a professional life that is almost certain to include instability, opportunity, and unexpected change?
Of all the possible options that an 18-year-old could sign up for, a small liberal arts college seems like it ought to be the ideal place for learning how to navigate, even transcend, the turbulent realities that seem more and more an unavoidable part of the world of work. But without designing what we do so that every student has to encounter this stuff, we leave that learning up to chance. And as usual, the students who most need to learn this stuff are the ones who are least likely to find it on their own. Looks like we better role up our sleeves and get to work!
Make it a good day,