The news this week was enough to make a parent – well, me at least – cringe. The Associated Press reported that more than half of college-educated young adults (defined as people under 25 with bachelors’ degrees) are unemployed or underemployed. Looking more closely, it was very clear that college majors matter significantly. Grads with degrees in nursing, teaching, computer science and accounting were among the most likely to get work commensurate with their education. Those with zoology, philosophy, art history and humanities degrees? They’re more likely to be the ones asking if you want your Venti Au Lait with 2%, Skim or Soy.
My first-born is heading off to college in the fall. Am I to take from this that if he doesn’t pick a course of study focused in the so-called STEM (that would be science, technology, engineering and mathematics) world, that he’ll be out of luck when he receives his diploma in 2016? Is it now my job to nudge him – like some rogue behavioral economist – into one of these fields when his true passion might be Shakespeare or music?
And what of the additional finding – also reported by the AP – that according to government data, only three of the 30 occupations that are expected to have the largest number of job openings by 2020 will even require a bachelor’s degree. What’s a parent to do with that can of worms? Stop encouraging our kids to go to college at all?
Of course not. Despite this blip, history continues to show that – on average – PhDs earn more than holders of master’s degrees who earn more than those people with bachelors, who earn more than folks who just attended “some college,” who earn more than high school grads, who earn more than – whew – people who didn’t graduate from high school at all. Education continues to pay. As for those majors, I will pass along the advice my college counselors passed onto me: If you’re going strictly liberal arts (as I did, with my major in English) load up your resume with internships and summer jobs in the fields in which you might like to work.
I figured out fairly early that I wanted to work in journalism. So, the summer after freshman year, I worked at the Martin’s Ferry Times Leader, a small town paper near my home. After sophomore year, it was Rodale Press in Emmaus, PA. I didn’t make it to New York until after my junior year, when I landed an internship at Advertising Age. I had a real (i.e. not padded) resume when I got out and I got a job, despite the fact that the market – like now – wasn’t chugging nicely along. And today, I find myself hiring kids who’ve done the same.
The point? We no longer live in an environment where a liberal arts major is an acceptable cover for four years of indecision over what you want to do with your life. College has become too expensive for that. And the market for employment has become too competitive. No matter what field you’re trying to enter, you’re going to be up against kids with several internships on their resume because they’ve been focused in that direction.
So, here’s the advice I’ll be giving to my son. The first year or so, it’s okay to take an array of classes to get a feel for what you might like. By the end of sophomore summer, you should have an idea so that you can look for some real-world experience in the field. If you still don’t know, well, it’s time to take a gap year – take the tuition pressure off your family – and do your best to figure it out. Then get yourself back in school and on a track, any track, to do something. It doesn’t have to be the thing that will earn you a living forever. But it does have to earn you a living for now.