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How to Help College Graduates Hit the Market Running

Higher education has a major responsibility when it comes to preparing students for the real economy that awaits off campus

This fall, college student debt load has come into focus in the U.S. presidential campaign. Critics have a point. Many young graduates face tremendous debt from college loans. Many in private colleges, especially, rightly question whether the benefits of higher education outweigh the costs.

We must offer new approaches and solutions. It is unethical to expect college graduates to take on such debt without preparing them for a career that will help pay it off. While we can’t control the undeniably challenging economy or federal student loan rates, Career Services can be part of the change in higher education that redefines what we deliver. 

Today very few have the luxury to go to college to learn for the sake of learning, without some future goals in mind. And very few get hired for a job based on pure intellect. Employers need people who, on day one, have the skills to do a job. Over the longer term, a well-rounded education comes into play. 

recently released survey of college graduates from 2006-2011 by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University found that, if given the chance to do it all over again, the majority would choose a different major and participate in more internship and work experiences. The same survey revealed that just half of those grads are working full time. Graduates in the trenches are telling us it is time for change.

Pursuit of the liberal arts is not enough in today’s economy. I am not downplaying critical thinking, but I am advocating the need to pair it with a marketable skill. At Bentley, business students are required to take half of their courses in the arts and sciences. It is this blending, this mix, that matters. This approach helps expand the way students look at things, the way they communicate, the experiences they have, and how they solve problems. 

It is also time for college career advisers to step up to the plate. A recent college graduate told a Seattle reporter about his fruitless job search, “I don’t even know what I’m looking for.” How discouraging for him, and for those of us who help students every day to develop and refine their career objectives.

It is our responsibility to make sure that does not happen. Students need our help, along with focus and self-esteem. They need to understand where they are going, how they are going to get there, and have the confidence to know they can make it happen. 

How do we do that? From the admission process, to first arriving on campus, schools should connect with first-year students to help them explore functions and industries and, ultimately, learn how their passions can translate into a career.

At Bentley, we feel so strongly about this that we hired a career adviser dedicated to engaging freshmen. We are also about to roll out a Career Development Introduction seminar taught by Career Services in collaboration with corporate partners to prepare freshmen for their first internship experience. After the seminar, students follow a four-year “hire education” approach that encourages exploration while emphasizing practical experience gained through internships, class projects, activities and networking.

Students need to be aware of hot careers/majors, such as computer information systems and actuary and marketing analytics; and they need to understand how technology is driving strategy for all businesses. But, ultimately, students need to learn how to integrate a business skill with liberal arts to help carve a niche and develop a value proposition, whether their passion is in public policy, health care, media, or sustainability, for example. That’s what employers are buying. Go ahead and be a film major, I tell students. Just be sure to learn how to make a film — and how to produce and sell a film, too.

Stories painting a pessimistic picture for college graduates ring hollow to me. In fact, the students who come through our door are juggling multiple job offers and hardly complaining about the economy.

And the cycle continues, because, we have over 70 companies interviewing our students this month alone, and an increase in the number of seniors beginning the school year with a full-time job offer already in hand.

It is time to hold higher education accountable. If we are not doing our job, how can we expect graduates to do their job, or even find one?

Susan Brennan is executive director of University Career Services at Bentley University.

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