It’s fashionable these days to dismiss the value of a college degree. But Trinity College in Connecticut changed the financial reality of my life.
My degree enabled me to discover issues and causes that led to a life and career full of passion and purpose. Growing up in a working-class family in western Massachusetts, I had little reason to think this trajectory was possible. But for my better-off Trinity classmates, a degree that led to a career was the expectation.
Despite all the rhetoric, the research is quite clear: For most young working-class students who finish college quickly and without much debt, college is still the best accelerator to a high-quality first job and a more prosperous life. But while political leaders and policymakers focus entirely on the cost side of the policy equation, they ignore the equally critical and utterly broken benefit side: the path to a good job.
We once promised our children that a college degree would enable them to find a good career that would provide for their families and protect them from the vicissitudes of an unforgiving economy. But we as a nation have broken that pledge. More than 40 percent of all recent college graduates hold jobs that don’t require college degrees. Underemployment rates for all college graduates hover around 33 percent — a figure that hasn’t budged in more than three decades.
A study from the Strada Institute for the Future of Work and The Burning Glass Institute reveals how critical that first job is. Those who start their careers with jobs that match their level of education rarely slide into underemployment. Roughly 90 percent of those appropriately employed in their first job out of college continued to hold positions commensurate with their educational attainment 10 years after graduation.
Those who start out behind tend to stay behind.
Workers initially underemployed in their first post-college job were five times more likely to remain that way after five years. Worse, according to this same study, underemployed recent graduates earn $10,000 less on average than college graduates who moved directly into traditional college-level jobs.
It’s critical, then, that college graduates find appropriate employment. Here are three strategies to help more college graduates find careers that use their college degrees:
Expand work-based learning opportunities. Paid internships, apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities are exactly what college students need to develop their talents and gain valuable work experience. They also serve as a career launch pad: According to one study, undergraduates who completed a paid internship earned $3,000 more in their first year after college than their peers who didn’t participate. Moreover, research has shown that students who took part in work-based learning programs are more likely to earn more, be satisfied with their careers and say that their education was worth the expense.
But access to these experiences remains much too limited. A recent Gallup survey found that only 40 percent of college students held internships. Participation rates were even lower among first-generation students and students attending public universities — that is, two groups more likely to come from under-resourced communities and have fewer connections. To ensure that college graduates have a direct and equitable path to good jobs, we should normalize robust early career training programs in college.
Reform the Federal Work-Study program. The Federal Work-Study program supports about 600,000 college undergraduates nationwide. But the bulk of these funds go to wealthier students at older institutions, and student jobs are not aligned with college majors or career aspirations.
A more effective approach would be to integrate work-based learning with coursework and incentivize the private sector to expand investments into scalable early-career talent programs. Students, private partners and approved intermediaries should have greater leeway to use work-study dollars to benefit all parties involved. Students want to work (and in many cases are working). It makes sense for employers to help young talent develop the skills they need to succeed.
Academics and work should connect. Many training programs help learners develop specific durable and technical skills. Linking classroom content with the workplace can further accelerate this process. Learning objectives in college classes should include not only subject matter mastery but also strive to intentionally improve communication, critical thinking, teamwork and other skills like project management and customer service that employers value. Given the velocity of change in the workforce, students who learn to upgrade their skills quickly and continuously can be extraordinarily successful.
It’s a waste of time to convince students that college is a bad investment. But while the cost side receives most of the attention, we should repair the college-to-early career pipeline to restore higher education’s life-changing effects for working-class students like me. Preparing students for their first jobs after college should be an expected and easily accessible part of the undergraduate experience — not just the wealthy and well-connected but for everyone.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift is the president of Education at Work, a national work-based learning nonprofit.
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