09/15/2011 06:21 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2011

College Needs Link to Work

Criticism of American colleges never goes out of style. Costs are high. The institutions are reluctant to extend the spirit of open inquiry they espouse to their own operations. And there's ongoing dissatisfaction with the job they do, which isn't particularly surprising inasmuch as there's little agreement on precisely what that job should be.

A new study makes the it clear that we're falling behind in the international quantity rate -- a bunch of other industrialized nations see a higher percentage of their young people graduate from college. So perhaps we should focus on quality. On the one hand, we do have some of the world's finest research universities. But we often fail at the other end of the spectrum -- failing to prepare students in non-technical areas to ease their transition to the workplace.

Many students believe that career services offices are a joke ("They tell you to wear a clean shirt and use deodorant"). And many colleges treat regular jobs in a cavalier fashion, suggesting that the main thing a bachelor's degree is good for is gaining entry to programs that will allow the pursuit of more advanced degrees or professional study. But only a minority of undergraduates can -- or can afford -- to do this. And many simply lack the interest or commitment for further study.

A number of innovators have attempted to fill this gap by writing regularly about how to succeed in the world of work and live like an adult. Two of the best are blogs written by friends. One is a young careerist who writes about how to decode the world of work and succeed without becoming obsesses. The other raised a son and a daughter and decided to share her counsel to them about how to cook right and eat right without becoming a professional foodie. Each is doing a fine job, providing a useful service and deserves a broader audience.

Taken together their advice offsets some of the weaknesses of higher education with its emphasis on the academic and its indifference to the skills needed to become an independent adult. Rapidly rising tuition (only medical costs consistently rise at the pace normal for higher education) suggests that they're lucky enough to be in a seller's market.

Ultimately, though, we'll need higher education reform for many of the same reasons we need our health delivery system reformed. We need to come to agreement about that these institutions are up to and how they could do it better. That's not going to happen overnight. In the meantime, new graduates (and those who leave before getting a degree) who majored in soft subjects like English and History in today's tough economy, need all the help they can get as they navigate the world of employment.