04/02/2013 04:42 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2013

The Truth About College and Career

I mentor a senior in high school with a wonderful non-profit organization. They've done an excellent job through the whole experience -- matching us as a pair, supporting the relationship, and providing great activities to work on together. However, I was stumped recently when we were talking about college and career. The organization presented us with a diagram on how a college degree prepares students for a career. It showed a direct link from a declared major to a resulting job. After reviewing the paperwork, I felt conflicted. I felt like I'd be lying to my mentee if I said, "Yes, absolutely, what you study in college will guarantee you a specific job and will prepare you for the real world." Let me add that my mentee is an immigrant youth and English is his second language. My mentee's family has already stated they can't financially support his college education and his SAT scores are below average.

I asked myself, are we are setting young people up for failure if we do not tell the truth behind college and career? There's a generation of young people like my mentee who lack the funds, the connections and the grades to make it through the traditional educational path. Simply going to a decent college, getting an internship, studying abroad, and getting a job after college with little to no debt is a rare sight for low-income and immigrant youth. We have to think of a new paradigm for education that is more affordable but still allows for young people to be passionate about working in a career that they'll enjoy.

So as my mentee asked me how college played a role in my career, I told him the truth as it relates to me:

What You Do Outside of College Counts
Having a part-time or even a full-time job is a must for some students. I told him about my various jobs such as an art handler and a valet attendant, and also mentioned my non-paying internship at Sony Music. I told him to get a part-time job to earn money, but to be sure to get an (ideally, paid) internship. Internships are tools which can help students who were academically behind in school or don't have enough social capital to gain the skills, experience, and confidence to succeed.

Develop Great People Skills
The second piece of advice I gave him was to bone up on his people skills. This is something college doesn't give you. Giving good handshakes, remembering people's names, having a good conversation, listening well and collaborating with people are some of the skills you'll need to make it through college and especially your career. At the very least, I told him to read lots of books. It will give you something to talk about with strangers.

Study What You'll Enjoy
After spending a few semesters fooling myself into believing that I was going to be a doctor, I stumbled upon a history class. Somehow I forgot that I enjoyed history in high school and was great at it. I let the traditional college ethos of getting a degree to learn a career waste a few semesters of my life. As soon as I majored in something I was good at, my grades picked up. Consequently my confidence went up plus I developed my presentation and communication skills that helped me later on in my career.

This is how a history major became the president of a non-profit organization.

So how do you scale this idea? I'm essentially saying that one alternative approach for getting youth college and career ready would be to strengthen enrichment activities, do more character development and make learning fun. Some have even suggested the new three Rs -- Rigor, Relevance and Relationships -- which I wholly subscribe to. Simply going to college, attending classes and obtaining a degree no longer cuts it for any youth, especially immigrant and low-income, to make it in today's job market. We need a new paradigm. We need a platform for allowing young people to have access to knowledge, resources and opportunities without putting them in severe debt.

There are a few organizations that focus on helping to bridge the gap between education and career. GenesysWorks, which boasts a 95 percent graduation rate and a 70 percent persistence rate places high school seniors in internships with major corporations has taken their program model and expanded it to four cities. Similarly, Year Up does a great job of preparing students from low income backgrounds with the skills, experience, and support to be prepared for higher education or career aspirations.

Are there any other alternative paradigms or innovative organizations that are getting young people college and career ready?