THE BLOG

Advising Students About College in This New Economy

07/17/2014 12:33 pm ET | Updated Sep 16, 2014

Throughout most of my lifetime, savings accounts always earned interest, houses always appreciated in value, and bachelor degrees always led to employment. I have been disappointed to learn that within the last few years, none of these "sure bet" investments are still true. We wouldn't dare give a young person who is just starting out the same advice today about bank interest rates or real estate values that we did ten years ago. So why are we still giving out the same old advice about college?

The unfortunate realities are that the U.S. economy began to decline in the fourth quarter of 2008, and there has been a corresponding weakening within our U.S. job market that has resulted in some of the highest national unemployment rates in recent memory. The combined effects have left their scars on our cities and states, our homes and businesses, and our friends and families. If we are to prosper once again as a nation, we need to change our strategies -- we must learn from our recent experiences and adapt to the realities of this new economy. We cannot simply continue past practices and assume everything will work out as remembered or as expected.

We should rethink the words of advice that we give and take. The lessons that our parents once taught us about succeeding in life may not necessarily be the best recommendations for our sons and daughters.

For instance, the conventional advice to young people planning to go to college was to get a degree in anything you want -- "just having a college degree will open doors for you." Well, the rules have changed for first-time job seekers, and this kind of outdated academic advisement is not only ill-informed, it is irresponsible.

Almost every major study of college-educated job seekers and employers in recent years has shown that graduates with traditional degrees in liberal arts, fine arts, social sciences, and humanities are among those with the greatest difficulty in locating employment while graduates in areas like science, mathematics, engineering, and information technology fare much better in the job market. In addition, graduates who have received special training in relevant employment skill areas while in college have little difficulty obtaining job offers. (See the 2013 Hard Times report on college majors, unemployment and earnings from Georgetown University; the 2014 Multi-Generational Job Search Study by Millennial Branding, a research and consulting firm; and Beyond.com, a career advisory website.)

Not all college degrees are created equal. Some are much more sought after by employers than others, and students deserve to know this. Certain career fields become over-saturated, yet universities continue to produce graduates in these areas by the tens of thousands every year. Today's students need to be wiser consumers and make smarter decisions about college. High school and college officials should provide them with current workforce data about various majors and encourage students to make more informed decisions about their major fields of study.

College going students need to be more selective about the institutions they choose to attend. In the U.S. today, many colleges look just alike. We have far too many institutions of higher education doing exactly the same things in exactly the same ways -- producing graduates in all the same disciplines as they have for decades. This approach may have worked in the past, but the modern reality is that an unwarranted number of new bachelor degree holders are unable to find employment in this difficult economy. Employers are much more selective than ever before, and most of the new college graduates don't stand out because they essentially all look alike. And in most cases, their college credentials don't match up with employers' stringent expectations for technical skills and expertise.

Like employers, college students must also learn to be more selective. They need to learn how to make market informed decisions about the institutions they attend and the majors that they choose. Colleges and universities distinguish themselves by their differences rather than by their similarities. And if students wish to stand out in the job market, they need to choose colleges and majors that also stand out.

Rather than making first contact with the college admissions office, potential students might be better served by seeking out the college placement office. Rather than asking questions about campus life and student seating at home football games, they should ask questions about job placement rates of graduates in different disciplines of study and about opportunities for earning industry-based certifications while attending college. Rather than pursuing fraternities and sororities, they should pursue work-related internships and fellowships. Today's college students must be serious about their education and make deliberate choices to boost their resumes. A little more time and research upfront in selecting a college can save a student a lot of anguish in the job market after graduation.