AAC&U News: May 2016
Perspectives

Life after College: Commentator Views on Successful Transitions from College to Career

As commencement season begins, commentator perspectives abound on how well today’s graduates are transitioning from college to careers. Are they doomed to be baristas for life (especially if they majored in the humanities)? How are changes in the economy and workplace affecting their trajectories?

Jeffrey J. Selingo, contributing writer for the Washington Post and former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, takes up this topic in his new book, There is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow. As Selingo notes in a recent New York Times essay, students take considerably varied pathways through college and into the workforce. And the phenomenon of some graduates drifting after college isn’t new. Selingo writes that “even in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the economy offered fewer career choices, there were college graduates who roamed through their third decade of life”—and many of those graduates ended up with successful careers.

Nonetheless, Selingo notes, today’s economy is particularly challenging. Citing the work of scholar Jeffrey Jenson Arnett, Selingo observes that “for today’s emerging adults, a college degree may be the biggest determinant of whether they launch into a sustaining career.” But while a postsecondary credential is essential to success in today’s competitive global economy, “how [students] navigate their college years”—in Selingo’s analysis, whether they are “sprinters,” “wanderers,” or “stragglers”—“also matters.”

In another essay recently published in The Washington Post, Selingo details “five critical skills every new college graduate should have”: technology skills, self-direction, curiosity, the ability to apply learning, and humility. Frequent readers of AAC&U News will recognize these important college learning outcomes in the LEAP vision for learning, in the principles behind AAC&U’s recent General Education Maps and Markers project, and in research AAC&U has commissioned about what employers value in recent college graduates.

Selingo’s vision, then, is consistent with AAC&U’s focus on the value of an engaged liberal education. But Michael Roth, former AAC&U board member and president of Wesleyan University, takes Selingo to task in the Atlantic Monthly for underplaying the advantages of attending a college or university fully committed to liberal education. He praises many aspects of Selingo’s book, but criticizes Selingo for his “infatuation with the latest hiring fads at trendy companies” and for “urging schools to have a much tighter relationship with corporations that claim they can’t afford to train people on the job—and are instead asking colleges to do it for them.”

Roth concludes: “What is really needed today is the kind of pragmatic liberal education Dewey called for a century ago: one that wouldn’t be reduced to short-term training, but instead would empower graduates to be engaged citizens. Sure, by preparing themselves for 21st-century jobs, broadly educated graduates can reduce fears about life after college. But as empowered citizens, they can also work to transform an economy and polity now hell-bent on reproducing privilege and poverty.”

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.

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