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Getting a Good Job in a Bad Economy: Where Top-Ranked Universities Often Fail Students

Updated: Jun 12, 2022

A top university may not always be the best choice.

For the vast majority of people, the point of a college education is to get a well-paying job after graduation. It is easy to see why this assumption is made, as statistics show that getting a college education often doubles lifetime earnings. In addition, many jobs that people without college degrees work are usually the lowest paid, least interesting, and often just plain boring.

However, many people learned that putting forth great effort and sacrifice may get someone into a top-ranked school and ensure graduation but may not immediately translate into a high-paying job.

In recent memory, this lesson becomes most evident during the Great Recession. The burst of the 2005 housing bubble had very detrimental impacts on most of the economy from 2008 to 2012. Around the world, many people saw their home value decrease by nearly half, whole industries were decimated, and many were severely underemployed or unemployed.

The group most badly affected was recently graduated students from both undergraduate and graduate programs. Recent grads often had no options to earn a living wage. Almost all had not established themselves in the workforce, gained years of training and experience, and otherwise proven their ability to perform, make money, and deliver results. No matter how hard many people tried, they were no decent options, requiring many to live and work with their families. Many government-based unemployment relief funds are only available to those who have worked and paid into the system, so recent graduates could not get unemployment assistance, even though they might be underemployed or unemployed for years. While seniority, age, and experience are not the only factors in performance, experienced and proven workers got work and higher pay than a less experienced person. the same as in any other economy.

Universities are often the first to take credit when alumni from their university are successful, but often are slow to accept blame when things go wrong in a recent graduate's career or personal life. University administrators would never admit their policies were short-sighted and did not account for helping students cope in such bad economies. University Career Service professionals did not have any explanation other than blaming the economy. Professors often reiterate they are there to lecture and grade exams in their academic subjects, not assist students in getting jobs. University alumni came up with excuses and not much real support when their young students and graduates needed it.

No graduating student should ever be in such a bind as not knowing where to go next and having no money for graduate school or a few months of living money. Even from top schools like Harvard and Yale, a surprisingly large portion was unemployed for years, had to live with family, or take on low-paid internships, or work at jobs that only required a high school diploma. Hopefully, better college advising would help people understand how best to deal with this situation. There are some options that we suggest investigating:

First, someone must realize that liberal arts degrees do not directly prepare for careers outside education and teaching. Yes, many people with liberal arts backgrounds often transition to fields, but it is usually despite a liberal arts education, not directly because of it. For liberal arts programs, the key is getting many deep internships, part-time jobs, and contacts in the field of interest, rather than relying on education to teach you workplace-relevant skills. While I am not sure liberal art schools are necessarily deceitful, they are far from having the same vocational placement abilities as the armed services, Career and Technical Education programs (including trade schools), or Co-Op schools like Northeastern University, Drexel, and the University of Waterloo. While these programs certainly do not have the prestige that a place like Harvard does, no one can argue that any program that can place nearly 100% of its graduates in jobs is an effective program, in that domain.

Second, there is a realization that liberal arts schools may not be directly helpful in competitive job markets but often provide an edge for graduate school admission over technical schools that focus less on academic reading, writing, and discussion. Many people from these liberal arts schools, including the Ivy League, Stanford, etc. often went to graduate school, got job skills there, and eventually were able to be successful that way.

Third, there must be an admission that degrees in literature, history, philosophy, etc., will not be as directly employable as fields in STEM. It is always difficult to admit that the choice you make has downsides, especially when the going gets tough. Saying "I moved from biomedical engineering to economics, then from economics to classics" would be an extreme example of making a personal choice from a highly employable field to one of very questionable employability. To be fair, many people from Classics majors, especially from top-ranked schools, can be as successful as their peers, but often face a less certain route. Still, I think it is almost false advertising for universities, such as mine, to say Classics majors have a 100% employment rate after graduation, when the statistics show a much more nuanced picture.

What is the reason for different majors having different employability? STEM fields require much more math and hard science skills, more study, and rigorous performance standard, yet these fields are almost always more employable. Many other countries, such as China and India, focus on proficiency in STEM much more than the Western world, as a STEM job is considered the best predictor of financial security. So, comparing the student who can and do complete studies STEM versus can and does get by in a history or literature major are a comparison of apples and oranges, as they are often two different people.

Fourth, high-performing universities have focused on getting students employable skills through high-quality work experience, higher than a typical intern and student pay, and co-ops programs. Northeastern University, Drexel University, and the University of Waterloo champion these methods, and nearly 100% of graduates obtain full-time jobs after graduation. While these universities lack the cohort effect of traditional liberal arts universities, the edge in job preparation is hard to ignore.

Fifth, there is the need for extra services before, during, and after university education. Wen Education is one service that provides career recruitment, but there are thousands of other services, too, that can provide. Career development comes from a few obvious sources and proficiency in a near-countless number of minor skills, activities, and opportunities. Long-term reading, research, talking to people, looking for new opportunities, and trial-and-error continually beats out looking for an E=MC^2 of career development.

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