A couple of months ago, The Pew Research Center published The Rising Cost of Not Going to College. The primary finding of this study was pretty straightforward: Yes, a college degree predicts a substantially higher average income than those without a college degree. Moreover, the gap in average salary between those with and without a college degree has widened, suggesting that a college degree is even more critical to individual economic success than it was for previous generations.
Although these findings add another powerful piece of evidence to rebut those who might argue that a college degree is no longer worth it, this study also asked respondents to reflect on several key within-college decisions and consider whether they should have done some things differently. I thought I’d share on of these findings that I think might inform our work as we help our current students prepare for life after graduation.
The Pew survey asked, “Thinking back to when you were a college student, do you think that any of the following things would have better prepared you to get the kind of job you wanted, or not?” The response options included choosing a different major, gaining more work experience, starting to look for work sooner, and studying harder.
By a substantial margin, respondents chose “gaining more work experience” more than any other option. 50% of the individuals surveyed indicated gaining more work experience, while 38% selected studying harder. Choosing a different major was selected least often (29% of respondents). More interesting still, respondents categorized as millennials (those born after 1980 who were age 25 to 32 in 2013 when the survey was conducted) were much more likely to regret not gaining more work experience than older respondents.
I find this result interesting because millennial students are the ones who are most likely to have been met with a college engagement and involvement philosophy during their first year. Although the theories of student engagement and involvement are several generations old, the popularity of the National Survey of Student Engagement and the NSSE juggernaut has helped turn student engagement and involvement into a pervasive theme across all types of higher education institutions. Yet the proportion of individuals who indicated that gaining more work experience during college would have better prepared them to get the kind of job they wanted suggests to me that at least some proportion of those individuals recognize that they should have given up some of the time they spent doing other things in college in order to gain more work experience. This work experience would have most likely been located off campus. As such, this finding seems to throw a wrench into the engagement and involvement mantra.
With that said, it is true that increasing involvement and engagement in student organizations or other educationally purposeful activities was never included as an option on the survey. So it’s entirely possible that these responses would have differed if that option had been included. Interestingly, this omission does seem to indicate the degree to which at least one higher education research center thinks that student involvement and engagement might prepare students to succeed in their future employment.
Please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t care about student engagement and involvement. On the contrary, the evidence clearly indicates that these behaviors are crucial for student learning and success. However, I think that it would do us good to revisit the way that we design many of the activities in which student participate. For student activities and organizations – do the experiences coordinated by these organizations encompass aspects of accountability, long and short-term planning, problem-solving with consequences if the problem is not fixed (or if the solution produces negative unintended consequences), and image management? Likewise, for on-campus student employment – are students asked to engage in complex work that requires them to think, plan, design, implement, and adapt?
Some of the explanation for the millennials’ response to this question may well result from the harsh economic conditions into which these student graduated in the last several years. However, I am not sure that this reality explains all or even part of their response. For there is a long list of institutional examples where involvement initiatives have focused on making sure that students feel satisfied in the present or feel like they fit in right now – a construct that focuses less on effectively preparing students for their future and more an making sure that they will like things at their present institutions enough to stay.
Of course, there are a lot of big-picture things we can do to impact whether the wealth of activities in which our students participate actually prepare them to succeed in the future. But one of the best things about the work we get to do is that we get to influence our students one by one. So I hope you’ll find a way this week to help a student stretch him or herself and choose experiences that will best prepare them to succeed in the future, no matter if they aren’t quite as much fun in the present.
Make it a good day,