Not So ‘Great Expectations’

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There was one message drilled into every K-12 student’s head: go to college or you’ll never find a job.

Nearly a year after receiving my degree, I suspect I was lied to.

I don’t want to point fingers. But, when feeling bitter about my minimum wage job, my university seems like a great place to blame.

Is that fair? Universities exist, at least on paper, for education and research. Still, they’re not alone in claiming degrees are a one-way ticket to Jobsville, USA.

Recently, I’ve joked that the class that’s been the most useful in landing interviews was a second-year economics course. Why? Because the professor sat us down every week for two-hour Excel tutorials. Sure, these days I can pivot table with the best of them, but the University of YouTube teaches the same thing for free. Were the four years and tens of thousands of dollars really worth it?

Employers also recognize the use (or lack thereof) of a degree. Earlier this year, the Burning Glass Institute released research showing changes in the education employers call for. Many jobs that once required a four-year education are moving towards different requirements. 

Known as skills-based hiring, job postings list more specific qualities desired from a candidate. Writing, research, and critical thinking are just some examples of skills employers take for granted when asking for a bachelor’s.

There are many upsides with this change, especially in technical fields, where skills are easy to test, a new talent pool is available. Two-thirds of American adults did not finish a four-year program. These days, unemployment is low, making hiring difficult. Removing unnecessary barriers can make filling vacancies easier. Companies also credit skills-based hiring with allowing them to hire more diverse candidates without waiting for universities to change their admissions practices. 

It remains to be seen if this trend will continue. Regardless, one thing is certain: graduates need to learn how to articulate their skills. Just as employers have struggled to communicate what they expect when they stop asking for a degree, new grads have to learn to meet those requirements in new ways.

What does that mean? For one, universities may face different demands for services. My career center had a waitlist of over a month for practice interviews and resume reviews. These services weren’t on my radar when considering schools. Yet factors like average graduate salary and employment rates play a large part in how we evaluate universities. If schools want to seem like a good investment, making sure graduates have the resources needed to get jobs isn’t optional. 

Universities are not the sole cause of the problem. The “go to college if you don’t want to work at McDonald’s” narrative also comes from parents and the K-12 system. However, maybe we should tell students a different story. The jobs of the future are likely to care about what you learned, not where you learned it. After all, without skills, a degree really is just an expensive piece of paper!

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