Michelle Singletary On Setting Expectations for College Graduates

Considering the unemployment rate for recent college graduates — 9 percent — I am always shocked to hear or read about students who borrow heavily with no specific job goals in mind. The Washington Post’s Michelle Singletary recently addressed this very issue:

Maybe a new report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce will help encourage students to make better choices about which college and degrees they pursue. “Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings: Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal“ answers the question that many people are asking in the aftermath of the recession. Is college still worth it?

For most, it is. But it all depends on your major, the report concludes.

“It was true in the 1970s that the purpose of going to college was to get a degree because you could move through a lot of occupations,“ said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown center. “But since then, the difference among degrees has grown substantially.“

Median annual earnings among recent college graduates vary from $55,000 among engineering majors to $30,000 in the arts. Education, psychology and social work majors have relatively low unemployment, but their earnings are also low and only improve marginally with experience and graduate education.

“Today’s best advice, then, is that high school students who can go on to college should do so — with one caveat,“ the report’s authors write. “They should do their homework before picking a major because, when it comes to employment prospects and compensation, not all college degrees are created equal.“

Like Singletary, I cringe when I hear about Liberal Arts majors who are about to graduate with no job experience. Even when I graduated with a journalism degree in 1999, editors cared more about my newspaper clips than they did my actual degree. Today, it must be even worse.

For those of you with children in college, did you make sure they had specific job goals? What do your children plan to do when they graduate?

28 thoughts on “Michelle Singletary On Setting Expectations for College Graduates

  1. One thing to be careful about is

    that most of those statistical sites and listings are not very reliable for planning for an individual.

    That is, you’ll see a stat that says, say, XXX degree makes lots of money and there’s projected to be a 20% increase in jobs. What they don’t say is that there are only 1000 of those jobs worldwide and that you have to wait for someone to retire to get one. Or that the reason it pays so well is that you have to be working on oil rigs in unstable foreign countries. Or for companies/in jobs that are so horrible to their workers that people retire or quit at alarming rates.

    And, the jobs that were great choices when you’re a senior in high school may not be when you graduate from college. Things change quickly.

    What will make a person successful in the job market are a variety of good, adaptable skills, and an attitude of lifelong learning.

    Fight your way through the math and science. Not because science is a great, stable career (it’s often not), but because having that knowledge and skill is applicable to a lot of good and interesting jobs.

    Fight your way through writing. Not because writing is a great, stable career (it’s not!), but because being able to write effectively and persuasively makes you a high quality and high level employee who can be given tasks that cannot be outsourced. And writing grant proposals and marketing plans is how money flows for the work you really wanted to do.

    And think about what you want in the long term. Where do you want to live? Do you want a family? Do you want to travel? What are your personal goals for your life?

    That career that you’ve set yourself up for as a cutting edge chemical engineer can only be done in certain cities, because the research is only done in a few places. Your intended spouse may not be able to find a job in that same city. If being a ChemE is your full identity, this is what you do. But if you went in it for the money and the job security, you may find yourself sorely disappointed.

    These $100k worth of loans are probably not tenable in any career choice, not even engineering.

    • Bravo!

      I’m standing up & clapping at your sensible advice! I’m going to copy it for my nieces & kids someday. My oldest niece right now is talking about going to an expensive four-year college for a degree she could reasonably get at a community college. But her parents are pushing four-year, and she wants to be with her friends. She doesn’t even seem particularly interested in the field she picked.

    • The “certain cities” thing

      My sister and her husband are struggling with this, because they are a dual-PhD couple who both have only certain cities in which they can work and there is pretty much 0% overlap between those cities.

      Right now they are dealing with it by living 6 months in each location but in 3 years their older child will be kindergarten age and that won’t really be feasible any longer. I don’t know what the long term situation will end up being.

      After all this, those more widely-available jobs like teaching, nursing, etc seem more appealing to me. Not that one can obtain them at the drop of a hat but at least you aren’t geographically constricted in the same way.

  2. Community college FTW

    and yeah, experience and connections mean a lot.

    But sometimes you have to be willing to borrow a lot for a long time to get to a better place…

    • The caveat w/ Community Colleges

      is the they have much lower completion rates (even when you count “transfer to 4 year institution” as part of “completion”).  The culture is often very different from 4-year schools, so you’re more likely to be surrounded by folks who have priorities other than education. Not that it’s not a choice to put in the mix, but I think lots of grads think that “CC for two years/ transfer to a 4-year school” is just that simple.  It’s not.  It takes planning (because not all CC credits transfer to 4 year schools) and it can take so long to finish the degree that the student just gives up.

      • in addition

        Many community colleges are impacted and it’s not possible to get all the classes you need in two years to transfer.

        I think also that a lot of what makes college important is the whole campus atmosphere. While my college experience is not typical, for my freshman summer I built electronics for the LIGO gravitational wave detector, and for my sophomore summer, I did independent research on asteroids, with much of my time spent up at a working research observatory, taking data not only for my paper, but for my advisor and people he supplied. I also got to meet and live with the other scientists who came to work on other instruments in the complex. None of that would have been possible as a community college student.

        Just meeting the other very academically oriented students and mixing with them in evening conversations and the like taught me as much as actually attending classes. Connections with graduate students and faculty too.

        That said, community college provides advantages too, in addition to money. You get the support of family. There’s more room for error and dabbling in courses. The academic support in many classes is better, because staff is there to teach.

        Now, would my four year experience be worth $200,000 in debt? Probably not. Thank goodness that’s not what I paid. But there is a difference in being at a school for four years rather than two. I don’t know how it will be when my daughter is that age. I also don’t know how we’ll afford it. But I think that what I would counsel right now is to look at the individual student – is this person ready to go off into the world yet, is she committed to completing the academics? – the cost in play, which is going to vary by school and by family, and make your best guess.

        • I’m a big fan

          of early college.  Take some classes starting in high school.  Knock out your foreign language, your psychology, your American History while you’re still close to home and only have that one class to deal with.  It can be cheaper, you get those at-home perks, and you can start college with a year finished if you do it right.

          • AP classes FTW

            I didn’t do community college in high school, but I did do AP English, Bio, American History and Spanish. Maxed out all my credits at BU, which allowed me to do a double-major. I got a two-fer on my undergraduate!

            • Yup.

              Me too. Plus the honours college that I was in didn’t have prerequisites for classes or requirements, so I could dive right into the interesting classes (and skip stupid things like ENWR101 or Intro to Biol).

              And the double major (Biology and Environmental Science) was a bit of an accident at the time (there’s a lot of crossover there). But it has worked out really well…I have way more flexibility now than I would with only one of those.

              • absolutely

                and honestly, in hindsight, I would’ve dropped journalism as a major. I think there were only three classes of real, genuine utility that I couldn’t have picked up on the job – media law and ethics, computer assisted reporting [which I studied with the lovely Elisa!], and a class on features writing which was useful because there was enough time to critique writing and work on more literary devices. Plus, I kind of liked two other classes – history of journalism (lots of primary source reading, which is always cool) and Foreign Correspondent, which was fun because the teacher had us “cover” an ethnic group in Boston as if we were foreign correspondents.

                Otherwise, all my other classes were “Hey, let’s pretend we’re in a real, life newsroom and pretend we’re writing real, live news stories!!!” Since I was always always interning for whatever publications would have me, I basically submitted all my articles that I’d written elsewhere. Often with the professor’s approval.

                BU was good at stressing that we needed to get as many internships as possible and the alumni office and the professors were really good at networking with us, but still, it’s too expensive a major to be pretending at real world experience. I got my first job at Associated Press in the Boston bureau because I’d been interning there. I got the internship in Boston because I had an internship with the London bureau (admitedly because I was doing a semester abroad with BU). They put me up for the AP internship because … I had done a previous internship for The Village Voice, etc., etc.

          • In our state, kids can do

            what is called “post secondary options”…basically, the state pays for qualified high school students to take classes at a local college or university.  These can be classes that they will need for a major, but basically, they just have to be “options” that aren’t offered in the student’s school.  

  3. Fairness

    The only fair thing I can see to do is have some honest, open conversations about college at the High School level. And I don’t see this happening.

    When I graduated high school in 1996, there was no question I was going to college- no question it would be a 4-year and no question that I could figure my major out as I went. I was that communications major with journalism experience who didn’t want to be a journalist. I graduated and lucked out that in 2000 it was still ok to have “any degree”- I was able to bounce around, get some experience and build a career.

    It shouldn’t be done anymore. If 1996 Missy became 2012 Missy, I think my PARENTS would be in the same mental space- Go to School! Four Year Degree! Take Out Loans! BUT I think times have shifted pretty radically.

    The best place for Missy 2012 would be community college. Hell, when I think about it, best place for 1996 Missy would have been the same- I might have figured out how awesome Speech Pathology was before I wound up 33 years old with 3 kids and a desire for a new career.

    SO we as a country need to talk seriously about higher education and what it means. For some reason “talk seriously” always becomes “bitch about money” but at least we’re in a point where it is being discussed. I can’t imagine a parent, who scrimped and saved for 18 years to gather funds to send their kids to college, would feel great about being told it probably isn’t worth it. But truth is, it’s probably not. The mental image parents, kids and high schools have regarding college needs to shift before we make any real headway into a cost/benefit analysis. My guess is if you truly looked into it, even when it was essential to have that college degree in “anything” the money you spend and the money you got back probably wasn’t a great ROI.  

    I’d be more impressed if we went towards an apprenticeship style educational system, where you work the job for “real” before you finalize your education.  

    • I have a great love

      for community college.  In our state, they’ve done a lot of work in the past 10-15 years to make sure one can go as seamlessly as possible from our 2-year onto out 4-year colleges/universities.  Our local community college is full of middle class kids taking advantage of the tuition rate that’s about one third of of our state universities.  Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of that cut rate tuition for the first two years?

      I also think it’s not bad that students can live at home those first two years.  Our local community college also counts this towards parents contribution, thereby maximizing financial aid.  

    • Your last point

      is why I’m a fan of a gap year, espeically for DS, who will probably graduate high school at 17. Travel, work, volunteer, do something, but get out there and see a bit of the world & think about what matters & what you want to do.

      I’m also open to considering a track system like is done in Europe. I’ve talked to a few of the interns at DS’s school (German college students majoring in education) and they’ve said it’s gotten easier to transition to university even if you originally tracked to a trade or something like that. You aren’t stuck with what you were capable of or told to do after eighth grade. But there still is no stigma to pursuing something besides college.

  4. DD is

    trying to get as many and as varied jobs/experiences as she can.  

    She’ll have a Liberal Arts degree (American Studies) and a focus that is not quite specifically defined.  There do seem to be a lot of jobs that she’d love and/or be qualified for, but I also think she’ll be able to piece together things (writing, etc) for a while after she graduates, if she needs to.  

    Encouraging her to focus on her generalizable skills (writing, speaking, analysis of wide ranging materials) has been my main message since she was a senior in college.

  5. This has certainly been

    an issue for our children.  Fortunately, because of the household they were raised in, they tend to gravitate to the technical and health care service sectors.  We’re going through this with youngest daughter right now as neither of these fields appeals to her.  She’d love to do marketing/PR, but several people lately have advised her against going this route as people with these degrees seem to be ‘a dime a dozen”.  

    • I might be one of those people!

      There is some truth to the “dime a dozen” theory, but there are a lot of openings with the constant change in media & technology. I would tell her to make sure her writing skills are outstanding, and think more in terms of general communication. I worked a bit with some communication specialists at the hospital when Gus was in the NICU, and they had a variety of skills & requirements besides straight marketing. When I was a TA for a journalism class, I was kind of shocked at journalism/PR majors who really didn’t think good writing was all that important, and believed that thinking up swell ideas & schmoozing clients would make them indispensible.

      There generally isn’t a lot of money in it, especially if she wants to work for a non-profit. But it can be hugely satisfying work. I spent three years in book publicity, which I would’ve never planned, but I enjoyed it & would do it again if given the opportunity.

      • well, she’s like all 16 year olds,

        and would like to retire a millionaire at the grand old age of 30.  I think she would like it.  My other daughter, who has a BS in video/tech communications, works in web developing and design.  Her major was very heavy on web design, but as she also made sure she got the tech side of things, she’s considered “valuable”.  A lot of communication skills are necessary in this tech field, too.  She has to write her own copy.  And be able to program.  So, I guess, nothing goes to waste and we’re at our best when we acquire as many skills as possible.

        • I’ll admit

          that I wouldn’t mind this myself

          would like to retire a millionaire at the grand old age of 30.

          But I’d settle for 40, being 38 and all :-)

    • honestly? I think Marketing/PR are trades

      Yes, you need excellent communication skills, but having a degree in marketing/pr is like any other communication degree – if you don’t have actual, real-world experience on your resume, you’re not going to get very far. Can DD get any internships with local companies in their marketing departments? Can she volunteer with a local charity/volunteer organisation and work on their marketing/communications stuff?

      She might be better off combining a strong resume of experience with a writing degree.

      • To be honest,

        I’ve sort of steered her in this direction.  She does like to write, and she quite out going.  She’s also very creative.  Next year, as a senior, she’s required to have either a part time job or spend time volunteering or interning.  I’m hoping we can come up with something that might add to her skills or at least give her a little bit of experience in a field she might want to pursue.

  6. It’s not so much about major

    It’s that some students are not (somehow) getting or taking the advice that they need to be pursuing their future vocation as they are also pursuing their academic interests. We need to see these as two separate tracks. There are very few majors that lead automatically to particular jobs, and even in careers like nursing there are no guarantees and jobs won’t be handed out with diplomas. You can be a philosophy major and go into finance or a communication major and go into management if you have been doing internships and you take advantage of your university’s career center resources–job ad databases, career fairs, skills workshops, on campus interviews, etc.

    To be honest, a lot of the recent grads I know aren’t job searching as they should…they wait until May to get started and don’t focus their attention on informational interviews and networking. If all you are doing is sitting around looking at ads online and uploading your resume to the ones that look good, you aren’t going to find a job very easily at all. The ones who have jobs usually got them through an internship that eventually led to a job offer (or made connections that did).

    Of course, sometimes you can do all the right things and still come up short, and there’s plenty of underemployment going on due to the economy. But I don’t think that’s a disaster. Most of my college friends in the early 90s took jobs that they thought were beneath them. Most lived with their folks again for a year as they got started. When the economy improved and they had some experience, they were in good positions to move up or move on.

    • I should have said

      This is all only based on my experience as the internship coordinator for my department, which is arts and sciences major that doesn’t lead automatically to an obvious heading on the job boards. My kids are obv not going through this, though I’ve seen the process through all my college kids over the years! And I should also admit that my community isn’t hampered by as much unemployment as many others, so I’m sure that’s shaping my perception.

    • Class of ’92

      Most of my college friends in the early 90s took jobs that they thought were beneath them. Most lived with their folks again for a year as they got started. When the economy improved and they had some experience, they were in good positions to move up or move on.

      Spent a year waitressing and living with my parents with my flashy Bachelor of Arts (Honours) before going to teacher’s college…and I lived with them that year too since it was in my hometown.  

      Of course, since I was in Ontario I walked out of university with about $5000 in loans so I’m just hoping that my kids can be talked into going to university in Ontario.   Since it’s based on citizenship and not where you graduated high school, they won’t be foreign students.  

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