College: A Place for Learning or a Place to Find a Job?

Why would someone go to college? The answer seems obvious: to learn. But is that really a student’s primary goal?

A recent piece in The Washington Post suggests that what was once seen as a place for young people “to explore courses and majors before settling on a job and career,” is quickly becoming “a means to an end: a job.”

Are colleges doing enough to address this drastic shift in function? Maybe not.

Inside Higher Ed cited a recent national poll conducted by the Robert Morris University Polling Institute, which found that fewer than half of survey respondents believed colleges “were doing enough to address current labor needs and trends” and “to help graduates find jobs.”

Valuing ROI

The poll’s findings support the notion that job placement has become a major factor in students’ choice of schools. In fact, 72.6 percent of respondents in the RMU survey said that a college’s ability to help its students secure a job was a more important factor in their selection process than its reputation as a “brand-name” institution.

The RMU poll’s results were no surprise to Jonathan Potts, the University’s Associate Vice President for Public Relations and Marketing. “These results confirm what we at RMU have known for years: Parents and students are increasingly concerned with getting a good return on their investment in a college education.”

In January 2015, Noodle published a special report on what parents look for in a college education. The findings? Shockingly similar — 72 percent of parents ranked “acquisition of real-world marketable skills” as highly important, but only 43 percent of them felt that their child’s college delivered on this objective.

Quantifying collegiate extracurriculars

In 2008, RMU made an effort to address this concern with its “student engagement transcript” — a companion to the traditional academic transcript that documents undergraduate students’ work-related experiences in their degree program, study abroad experiences, community service, and campus leadership. The goal was to make their graduates more marketable to employers looking for candidates with out-of-the-classroom experience.

“It’s one of the reasons that more than 90 percent of our students each year find a job or enroll in graduate school within a year of graduation,” says Potts.

Other schools across the country are now following RMU’s lead.

Adapting curricula

Oliver Bateman, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Our job nowadays is to teach the required introductory-level courses to students pursuing job training in clearly-defined fields. In that sense, it's obvious that colleges have adjusted: Students wanted practical programming, and university administrators have responded to that need.”

Making tuition count

Another factor in the shift to a more outcome-oriented approach to college has been the cost of tuition, which has skyrocketed in recent years. And since, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, fewer than 33 percent of college students graduate within four years, the student-loan debt they accrue can be crippling as they head out to begin their careers.

David Barker, Ph.D., is the Director of the Institute for Social Research and a professor of government at California State University, Sacramento. “In general I am very sympathetic to the plight that young people and parents face nowadays when it comes to higher education,” he says. “Because college is such a big investment, and because you have to go in order to get a decent job, why not gear college to the things that will actually be of practical use, and let the ‘learning for learning’s sake’ take place online, throughout one’s lifetime?”

College is still relevant, and there’s nothing wrong with gaining a well-rounded, comprehensive education. But the shift in how education functions has changed the ways in which students are approaching higher education.

Reaping the Benefits of Pragmatism

College-bound young adults need to be creative and savvy. They need to have clear goals and a plan to reach them. They need to complete internships and get hands-on experience outside of the classroom. Perhaps most importantly, they need to understand who they are, be able to present themselves in a professional manner, and know how to market themselves effectively to potential employers. In short, they need to be practical about their education, and in doing so, set out on the right path to a successful, meaningful, and fulfilling career.

Noodle has presented a variety of opinions on the value of college. Follow these links to read different Noodle Expert's opinions on whether a 4-year degree is worth the expense and why the ROI of a college education is misleading.