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Dr. James T. Minor Headshot

10 Workforce Skills Every Student Should Gain Before Leaving College

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Flickr: US Embassy New Zealand
Flickr: US Embassy New Zealand

Increasing the percentage of Americans with a college degree is now a bono fide national movement. Currently about 39 percent of American adults have a college degree. In order to regain the crown of "Most Educated Nation in the World" that percentage will have to increase to at least 60 percent. This means that our higher education system must produce approximately 40 million new college graduates in the next decade. In addition to potential bragging rights, there are real economic consequences for failing to yield more college graduates. Workforce analyst estimate that 59 percent of jobs today require some postsecondary education and that by 2018 there could be 3 million unfilled jobs due to a shortage of college graduates. The challenge is that the fastest growing populations in the U.S. remain the least likely to earn a college degree. The percentage of African Americans between the ages of 25-34 with at least an associate degree is 26 percent compared to 44 percent of Whites, 68 percent of Asian Americans, and 17 percent of Hispanics who now represent 22 percent of public school enrollment.

While getting a college degree dramatically improves a person's potential earnings over time, the sheepskin alone is not the sine qua non. For the last two decades the business community has criticized higher education for producing graduates with degrees but inadequate skills. In general terms the complaints amounted to degree-holders being unable to analyze problems, write, or work in diverse settings. Additionally, this generation of students is perhaps more inclined to believe that getting into and out of college are the big accomplishments rather than what happens in the middle. The following are 10 rare, but important, messages that college students desperately need to hear in order to capitalize on college.

1. Develop personal learning goals: Students should develop a personal sense of the skills and competencies they want to possess as a college graduate and then ensure that their course work and out-of-class experiences reflect them.

2. Practice analyzing difficult problems: The ability to think critically and analytically require engagement beyond completing a class assignment. Many students make the mistake of focusing on the grade in a course rather than the opportunity to fine-tune essential skills.

3. Learn to be an excellent writer: While some might argue that prose was lost with this generation and replaced for social media abbreviations, the ability to express complex ideas, synthesize large amounts of information, and advance logical arguments in a written format are still very valuable assets in the workplace.

4. Cultivate a sense of social responsibility: Highly evolved college graduates are expected to make contributions to society beyond paying higher taxes. College campuses are great laboratories for developing an awareness of social problems and determining one's contribution to solving them.

5. Exercise leadership: Not everyone was born to be President of the United States despite all those 4th grade declarations. The good news is that the presidency is only one expression of leadership. There are several ways to exhibit and exercise leadership while in college. Doing so allows students to learn about their capacity to lead and provides great opportunities to practice, typically without serious consequences.

6. Hone civic skills: Successful participation in a society with laws, municipalities, democratic processes, political parties, and free access to the internet requires the ability to navigate civically and understand social institutions.

7. Learn how to work as member of a team: The capacity to work successfully as a member of a diverse team is a learned skill and less a personality trait. It requires some practice and experience is a good teacher.

8. Go global: Some campuses now require incoming students to apply for a passport with the expectation that they will become more aware of world as a part of their education. Study abroad, learning a foreign language, or intense cultural studies are all great options.

9. Refine social skills: A cool screen name and hyperactive twitter and Facebook accounts don't count. Aptitude for developing and managing personal relationships still has value along with the ability to speak publicly with clarity and grace.

10. Borrow wisely: Mismanagement of student loan debt can become a 20-year ball and chain that impedes personal wealth, prosperity and dare I say happiness.

The mere act of landing on a college campus or even getting a degree does not necessarily lead to the land of milk and honey. Although minorities are among the least likely to graduate from college, there is much to gain individually and communally. College, if done correctly, still has the power to dramatically improve the social and economic trajectory of America's underclass. Yet, there remains that faint irrational, specious undertone suggesting that college may not be worth the cost. Ignore it.

Young, K. (2011). Minorities in Higher Education 24th Status Report. Published by American Council on Education
NCES, (2012). Higher Education: Gaps in Access and Persistence Study. National Center for Educational Statistics