Ask people about the value of college today, and you’ll get a bewildering mix of answers. Optimists savor a 2014 Federal Reserve study showing that people with diplomas earn $830,000 more than non-graduates over their lifetimes. Skeptics respond that it is impossible to ignore rising student debt, rickety graduation rates—and growing anxiety about many graduates’ eventual destiny.
This schism is happening because there isn’t a guaranteed ticket from campus to a solid career anymore, journalist Jeffrey J. Selingo asserts in his new book, “There Is Life After College.” Instead, confusion abounds regarding the paths students should take to maximize their odds of success. Troubled by what he describes as too many recent college graduates “drifting through their twenties without a plan,” Selingo has set out to provide a one-stop guide to the new perils, opportunities and choices associated with college and beyond.
Selingo’s book is bursting with fresh ideas and vivid examples, which makes it both exciting and exhausting to read. He’s got something to say about everything from gap years to bootcamps; he’s talked to everyone from tattooed word-workers to university presidents. Sometimes his reportorial wheels are spinning so fast that it’s hard to take in the implications of a particular quote or statistic before three new concepts have arrived.
All the same, the breadth and depth of Selingo’s expertise make him a uniquely good guide to what’s undeniably a complicated topic. Here are a dozen gems from the book that got me reaching for my Hi-Liter or underlining pen:
- College graduates can be divided into three categories, depending on how they approach career choices. Based on a 752-person survey that Selingo commissioned for this book, he splits them into sprinters, wanderers and stragglers.
- The world is rich with alternatives to the traditional timeline for emerging adults wanting education and a career. One intriguing early option: a well-structured gap year right after high school – which lets people uncertain about their future explore some choices and regain a sense of purpose.
- Geography matters. If students want to pick colleges close to major job hubs, Selingo provides a handy table of which metro areas deserve the close looks. He also documents the ways urban universities are making greater use of their advantageous locations.
- Not every marketable skill requires a four-year degree. Building on themes of his earlier book, “College Unbound,” Selingo speaks positively of quick-cycle training programs like General Assembly and Koru. These cater to both college graduates and college dropouts wanting to learn a bit about coding, design or presentation skills in a matter of days or weeks. He also endorses a bigger role for community college, particularly for people seeking mid-career upgrades to their skills.
- A little tech can go a long way. Selingo writes approvingly of what he calls “the digital humanities,” in which students combine digital awareness with a traditional humanistic focus on writing, rhetoric and critical thinking. That can open the way to careers in areas such as data visualization and digital mapping.
- Too much choice can be a problem. In some cases, narrowing college students’ range of electives is the best way to help them graduate faster.
- College-level internships are becoming increasingly crucial to getting hired after graduation. In fields such as accounting, as many as 60 percent of summer interns end up with full-time job offers after graduation. The odds are steeper in areas such as fashion, where only 20 percent of internships lead to permanent jobs.
- Unpaid internships generally don’t help students’ career prospects much. The exceptions involve cases where unpaid interns do more than menial work and are on a publicly recognized hiring track.
- For people who can’t figure out their career strategies after college graduation, bridging programs such as Koru and Venture for America offer hands-on training that lasts anywhere from three-and-a-half weeks to two years.
- Students at UCLA now say the main reason to go to college is to get a better job; 10 years earlier, they said it was to improve their knowledge. Yet for all this stated interest in careers, students are taking longer than before to achieve certain levels of income and employment. They are growing up more slowly.
- Employers are inconsistent in what they say they want. Senior-level executives say they prize strong communication skills, critical thinking, teamwork, rigor and polish. But front-line hiring managers tend to look for narrow skills that can match an immediate job need, rather than broader potential.
Put it all together, and Selingo’s biggest insight is that we shouldn’t be hunting for a one-size-fits-all approach to postsecondary education and the ensuing migration into the work world. Sprinters, wanderers and stragglers all need to find approaches that work best for them.
Yes, it can seem frustrating at first that, as Selingo observes, a job isn’t a trophy waiting for graduates as they walk off the stage at commencement. The workplace has become much more complex in recent years. But somewhere in the multitude of career-developing opportunities that he describes in his book, there’s probably a payoff for just about any reader.