Before college there was family and tribe. College was developed as a finishing school for those who could afford it after high school. Today, just over 60% of high school graduates go directly to college. The 17-22-year-old age group makes up only 40% of the current college population. The high schooler is told the diploma is the ticket to success. To the first-generation college attendee, higher education is the way to break the cycle (with very difficult challenges). To those working part time and full time (now the majority in post-secondary education) education is the gateway to advancement. In so many cases the cost exceeds affordability. $1.4 trillion of debt later and a government loan program that is no longer sustainable, we are redefining success. What does college mean if clarity of purpose is not pre-defined?
Until the mid-20th century we learned the continuity of our norms, cultural assimilation and life skills from our parents and grandparents. For centuries multi generations lived under one roof. Single parenting and dual earning households changed the paradigm of the nuclear family. Technology evolved the parental learning platform from the dining table to the rear-view mirror and the cell phone. When we look at our youth today, it is critical to realize it is no fault of their own that they seem different. The impact of parents and technology have for centuries been the largest influence on their assimilation into society. It is no different today.
In the first decade of the new century, our youth experienced dramatic changes through the Great Recession and the tech bubble burst, leading to parental disruption and lasting impressions. Job losses in families and the tech upheaval in employment fostered a distrust of corporate America. Loyalty in the workplace was exhausted by slacking job development, regulatory expansion and no wage growth. Today the average 50-year-old has had 5 jobs in their career. The average 30-year-old has already had 5 jobs. There are lasting ramifications of corporate downsizing and the resulting job security decline. Employers want career readiness and students just don’t have the guard rails taking them there.
Changed parenting and the unintended consequences of government regulation like child labor laws led to less childhood workplace experience. From the farm working families at very young wages to the teen minimum wage jobs of the 20th century, prior young generations grew up with a work ethic and very little screen time. That has changed. Scott Lawn Care Company and Home Depot just announced a new video educational program on how to mow your lawns for millennials. Very telling.
Our colleges are challenged to adapt. According to the New York Federal Reserve for every $1 increase in government aid to education the price of tuition has risen 65 cents. Colleges have increased their costs, expanded their overhead and the results are not turning out mastered competency or talent pipelines to employers. Over 90% of college administrators feel they are turning out a prepared product while an equal number of employers feel the opposite. Charles Eliot of Harvard in the 1870’s viewed the model of students pursuing their passions in four-year colleges. The thought was to leave more skilled training in vocational and technical skills to graduate programs, apprenticeships and specialized two-year degrees. With increased tuition costs and less experiential early development, it would seem this model needs a revisit. Without the pre-college work experience of prior generations as well as studies showing slower cognitive brain development of youth today, the expectation by many students and parents is that college should prepare students not just with knowledge but learning applications in life like risk taking, curiosity and empathy.
Governments, local and national have also weighed in on education. Looking for measurable outcomes has moved educators to “push” students to graduation despite lacking skills while helicoptering parents haven’t helped by pressuring advancement without completed skill training. The resulting grade inflation has proven devastating when combined with other factors (discussed in prior blogs and above) is leading to dropping out, lower self-esteem, drug overdosing and higher suicide rates in our youth. Students regularly talk to us of their feelings of unpreparedness for the “real world”. Even though they have the graduation trophy, the traditional four- year student in college after direct enrollment from high school is aware of lacking experiences to make career decisions. To complete the traditional college academic 4-year track, there is a yearning by our youth to do meaningful work and contribute to society but a lack of perceived navigation to adulthood.
Employers’ needs for labor retention by offering higher wages, work rule flexibility and enhanced benefits is one key to success. But skills experience and training must be recognized as lacking in our youth. This is due to a different societal upbringing. Employers and colleges need to intervene in the identification of needed skills and the advantages of concurent pre- hiring experiential learning. Coop flex schedules allowing for three intern semesters rather than summer exclusiveness is an example that students can initiate themselves. Access to fall and spring internships during accounting busy season or consumer preparedness to holiday selling seasons are simply common sense. Mini internships and project experience can be offered by employers as trial runs. This develops and tests skills for onboarding and orientation for employers. This gives applicants better preparedness and confidence thus creating better fitting first jobs.
Without less childhood exposure, college age students need to supplement their academics with team building skills, grit, and leadership development that promotes communication and conflict resolution. Travel and independent as well as group experience needs to be promoted thru sports, Greek life, campus affinity groups and encouragement of public service. Emphasis and credit in these areas by administrations would promote constructive responsibility and independence. Rewards for accomplishment and repercussions of non-accepted behavior on a consistent basis is key.
College is serious business to those already with a family, a job or those non-traditional students who now make up the college majority. But for those raising their children and promoting college, mentors need to communicate the pathway. College should be encouraged not just for the degree, but as the period necessary to identify passions and truly prepare for a career. Employers pushed to improve their ROI, need to intervene pre-hire to find candidates meeting their criteria rather than blind dating recruits at career fairs. Students, realizing adulthood is at hand, should be encouraged that if they want to be prepared, it is not simply about the degree. To maximize the most formative years of their life, our youth must experience building relationships, empathy, and applying knowledge in the learning of life.