Careers & The College Grad: What’s a Liberal Education Got To Do With It?

Written for the First National Career Summit, hosted by Sheila Curran at Duke University, March, 2006

Introduction

Seventy-two percent of high school seniors perceive professional preparation as a key
driver of educational value. This is according to research conducted by Eduventures, a
Boston-based consulting company. When choosing colleges, these students assess access
to internships, placement record and the quality of the career office. Given these
statistics, it is likely that colleges and universities will increasingly view the careers
office as a strategic partner in attracting students, leading to increased visibility and
funding. However, before those of us in the careers field start cheering too loudly, it’s
worth evaluating whether we think this emphasis on pre-professionalism is a good idea,
particularly in a predominantly liberal arts institution. This paper explores the role of a
top college or university in preparing its graduates for the future, and issues that must be
addressed by those responsible for the academic program and careers offices.

The Consumer View

First, let’s look at what’s driving student opinion. There are good reasons for students and
their parents to be concerned about the future, given the high cost of education and
average debt at graduation of around $11,000. But what the Eduventures information also
suggests is that a significant proportion of students–and, no doubt, their families–are
viewing education primarily as a means to an end. In other words, students and their
families are buying a “brand” which provides a quid pro quo for their financial
investment. This investment is expected to lead to a high-paying job after graduation, or
access to a top medical, law, or graduate education.

The attitude of incoming freshmen is troubling on a number of fronts. Consider the
assumptions that appear to lie buried in the statistics, and are borne out in anecdotal
information from students:
• The end result of education is more important that the education itself
• Education that does not appear to have immediate pre-professional relevance is perceived as a luxury
• Success is defined by having a high-paying job at graduation

At a recent conference at Duke for high school guidance counselors, participants echoed
the research about student and parental attitude towards the college search. They also
pointed out that little information is available about what graduates really do after a
liberal arts education, and how they might best use a liberal arts education to their career
benefit. My coauthored book, published in May 2006 and titled Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career, was written to address some of the
prevailing myths and assumptions.

Education and Preparation for a Lifetime of Changing Careers

While students and their parents typically look to student success immediately after
graduation as a test of whether an institution is providing a return on investment, these
results are not a true measure of the value of education. The fact is, most entry-level jobs
don’t require the kind of advanced abilities that can be developed through a good college
education. A better metric for success is the degree to which our institutions help students
develop the ability to progress throughout their careers, and ultimately to make a
difference in the world.

To illustrate this point, Appendix A identifies the basic skill sets that students need at
graduation. They are listed in order of importance as identified in the National
Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2007 employer survey. Appendix B identifies
the vastly more complex characteristics anticipated for success in 2020. I chose the year
2020 because I like the idea of 2020 foresight rather than hindsight. Plus, after thirteen
years in the work world, 2007 graduates will be poised for the kinds of positions
requiring broad responsibility. More important than the success characteristics
themselves is the identification on the chart of the ways in which a student can use his or
her college education to develop these attributes. It is clear that our view of education
needs to include all learning that takes place during the time the individual is a student:
classroom learning, extra-curricular activities, and work-related experiences.

Success Characteristics in the Work World of 2020

As indicated above, a strong liberal arts education prepares students best not for their first
jobs, but for jobs at mid management level and above. Clearly career centers need to
help students find employment immediately after graduation, but if they simply
accomplish that task, they will have missed the opportunity to prepare students for a
lifetime of changing work and careers. More important, they may neglect the task of
educating students about how they can best use skills developed in college as they
progress in their careers.

In 2020, it is likely that the most successful people will need the following skills:
• Leadership and management (encompasses need for emotional intelligence; vision; communication and human relations skills; persuasion)
• Motivation and initiative (encompasses need for tenacity and focus)
• Ability to move swiftly to capitalize on opportunity—both business and personal (encompasses flexibility; adaptability; ability to learn from experience; initiative, entrepreneurial spirit; sense of responsibility for self)
• Ability to leverage resources—people and things (encompasses ability to communicate; political savvy; human relations skills; an understanding of the way things work)
• Willingness to continually learn, reflect and change course (encompasses need for on-going analysis and reflection)
• Cross-cultural understanding and appreciation for difference (encompasses communications skills; ability to see things from different points of view; ability to synthesize and interpret information and create cogent arguments; foreign language skill)
• Honesty, integrity and strong work ethic (encompasses leadership and empathy)

Being aware of success characteristics for 2020 is important. But achieving them is
difficult unless career professionals and academic advisors give a consistent message
from the time of matriculation about how we view the relationship between education
and career. To promote the kind of graduate success that reflects well on colleges and
universities, there should be expectations for both institutions and students.

Recommendations for Academia

Increase opportunities for true immersion experiences through which students can
tackle thorny societal problems. (Duke Engage is a good example.) Recognize
that student initiative is critical to getting the most out of these experiences, and
ensure that mentoring, guidance, and reflection opportunities are available.

Improve advising. Few colleges or universities—particularly research
universities—would receive an “A” for advising services. Yet trained advisors
early in a student’s career can be instrumental in helping students make the most
of their education from a career perspective.

Build into the curriculum opportunities to practice communication skills,
particularly those that encourage listening, hearing and being able to articulate
different points of view. Support the debate team. Teach rhetoric!

Assess and evaluate programs, especially those like Study Abroad, that involve a
significant percentage of students. Consider introducing an area studies
requirement and a foreign language requirement so that students can gain the most
from their experience abroad. Don’t take it for granted that students will step out
of their comfort zones. Make it an expectation.

Encourage and support students who take responsibility for their own education,
and who seek out opportunities and resources. Support faculty and staff who
engage with students on an intellectual and personal level.

Encourage interdisciplinary work and the application of knowledge in real world
situations. Service learning is the ideal opportunity to integrate learning in and
out of the classroom. However, other areas could also lend themselves well to
working on projects that relate to classroom learning. Thus, a history course on
the holocaust could lead to helping to plan and promote a holocaust exhibit.

We cannot expect that students will know how important it is to take full advantage
of education, broadly defined. Therefore it is incumbent upon careers offices and
academic administration to reinforce the same message: that success after college is
dependent not just on the accumulation of knowledge, but also on the development of
attitudes and behaviors. It is also important that we educate students from the time
they set foot on campus about the purposes of a college education, and its relationship
to what they do once they graduate.

The Ideal: A Message to Incoming First Years

  1. A college education is the sum total of your student experiences. You can
learn in the classroom, through extracurricular activities, on the athletic field,
through internships and beyond. Learning outside the classroom may prove to
be more important to your career than the subject of your degree. The quality
of your education is determined—at least in part—by the degree to which you
immerse yourself in learning. Take responsibility for, and engage with all
aspects of your education.
  2. When you matriculate at college, you’re not expected to know what you want
to do after you graduate. Abandon preconceived notions of acceptable career
directions. Make the decision yours!
  3. Recognize that confusion and discomfort is not only normal, it’s expected and
it’s a good thing. Give yourself permission to not be perfect. Allow yourself
to fail. But make sure you learn from failure. You can recover from a “D”.
  4. Don’t choose your major too early, or decide on a major because you’re close
to completing the requirements, or you think you need it for a particular
career. (You may not!) It’s much more important to study what you love than
to follow a path that may be more common but doesn’t interest you. You can
pursue most career paths with any major. Major doesn’t equal career, and
more majors doesn’t equal better careers. Resist the temptation to build
academic credentials at the expense of exploring new horizons.
  5. A high GPA may be necessary for a good graduate school, professional school
fellowships/scholarships, or for employment in investment banks/consulting
firms, but most positions do not require a GPA above a 3.0. Employers rarely
consider GPA for second jobs. Students with the best academic records aren’t
necessarily the best candidates for employment. Employers want to see
transferable skills, which can be drawn from any part of your education.
  6. Graduate school may not be as necessary as you think. Only go to graduate
school or professional school if you are convinced you need that type of
education for what you want to do.
  7. Study abroad can be a career boost or a career bust. Almost all students enjoy
their study abroad experience, but it can only give you a real career advantage
if you step outside your comfort zone and learn skills like linguistic fluency,
cross-cultural competency, flexibility, resilience, and decision
making/problem solving. To obtain a career advantage, you need to have a
true international experience, not an American experience abroad.
  8. You’re missing the boat if you don’t build relationships with faculty, staff and
advisors early in your time at college: they can be your biggest allies and
guides.
  9. Define success for yourself, even if it means you’ll be unemployed at
graduation and won’t be making the highest salary. Being employed at
graduation has more to do with the type of employer you seek than with your
value to the work world. Most employers of top college grads do “just in
time” hiring, so that you can only be hired when an employee has left.
Prepare for the job search while at college, but recognize the actual
application process may happen after finals.
  10. Careers don’t happen over night: they take time. Build a partnership with
counselors in the Career Center and/or with trusted advisors, so that you learn
the realities of life after graduation, and understand how you can best prepare
yourself through your college education.

Conclusion

Education and career preparation are symbiotic. The more a student learns in college,
and takes advantage of work and internship opportunities, the more likely it is that he or
she will be considered a compelling candidate for employment. However, to make this
connection happen requires a partnership between academic administration, student
affairs and the careers office.

Some universities, like Duke, have already made progress by coding courses to identify
what attributes or skills will be developed through the class. But we need to go further.
Now is the time to make the connection between classroom learning, extracurricular
learning, and career. Once that connection is made, students will come to understand that
they can reach their professional goals while gaining something infinitely more valuable:
a true education.

Appendix A and B are available by emailing Sheila Curran at curranoncareers@gmail.com.

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