Life After College

By the end of sophomore year, tradition suggests that most college students should think about how they can narrow their interests to a range of opportunities after graduation. It’s not that college is over for them, it’s just more a case of the need to plan ahead.

While many began their college careers thinking that they knew what they wanted out of life, few students are so mature and have had all the tumblers kick into place.

They may know their range of interests. Some may like a variation of what one of their parents did. Or, the students may know that they are good in math or like to build things. But, most students don’t know, and only a precious few are certain on the specifics.

It’s actually a good thing since college is a time for traditional college-age students to imagine their future.

In the rising pressure to translate college degrees into jobs, families should appreciate one aspect of the gift that a college education makes possible for their son or daughter. It is their first, and arguably their last, sane moment when they get to think and reflect about how they want to live out their life. We may quibble about whether these are adult thoughts, but their arrival at college signals that they have entered into adulthood.

The more confident students understand this privilege while the scared ones put off this internal debate. A few try to restage “Animal House.” But most traditional college students understand this dilemma, at least at colleges and universities where residential learning is serious business. They want to assist the students to work through the process.

The problem is that colleges come at this assistance with a silo mentality. Residential life leadership works with students in the “here and now,” providing a menu of programs almost too large to digest intellectually as well as a growing range of cultural, social, religious and psychological support services. The alumni office operates on a “cradle through career” mindset, cheerleading future donors into a deeper love for their future alma mater. And career counseling offices work with the students, but many counselors assume that most of this work is a continuum with interaction increasing as the reality of graduation nears.

This compartmentalized approach suggests that colleges need some fresh thinking in at least three areas. Each area supports the academic program, residential-based learning, and alumni engagement.

The first area is to link the three operating divisions of the college or university together, by practice if not by administration. They should develop a strategy to communicate and offer programs that move students through the continuum.

While “it’s the academics, stupid,” applies universally, one lesson learned from the Great Recession is that time for reflection is also a time for preparation. Preparation is ongoing and evolutionary for the student and means something different in each of the four years.

That having been said college and university administrators should coordinate their efforts carefully to develop a plan to bring each student successfully from “cradle through career.” The payback to the institution in improved retention, higher graduation rates, and alumni contributions will be worth the effort to rethink the process of how students move through college.

The second area is to expand services while creating efficiencies and economies of scale. College administrators should work directly with faculty and staff to assist in development of each student’s portfolio. There is enormous value to department-sponsored internships and externships, either through alumni and corporate sponsorship or by designation in the college or university capital campaign as an ongoing scholarship need.

Setting an endowed scholarship program in place that funds externships and internships sends a message about the institution’s commitment both to educate broadly and develop a knowledgeable workforce fully prepared and better experienced than comparable graduates elsewhere.

Beyond these programs, colleges and universities must pay more attention to humanities majors. It is no longer feasible for colleges and universities to steer resources toward professional programs like business and engineering, assume that humanities majors turn into lawyers, psychologists and other professionals, or simply become the next generation of education faculty, at whatever level. This can be done on campus or through innovative partnerships with like-minded consortia in a well-publicized effort to employ the writers, philosophers, and historians of the future.

Finally, colleges and universities must think about how higher education and the ed tech community can come together to build a professional life after college. What combination of technology and career counseling can be put together to provide a wider range of opportunities more broadly communicated than attendance at a college work fair?

Life after college begins on the day that a freshman arrives on campus. The players – the faculty, residential life, career counseling, and alumni affairs – must work in consort to develop an output that answers an important question beyond the assumption that students must be educated liberally.

It’s not vocational training to raise the issue as a “value added” step to a college degree. The question is: “What kind of a life can I build after college and how can my college or university help me get there?”

 

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