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Susan Brennan

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Holding Higher Education Accountable for Students' Return on Investment

Posted: 07/03/2012 1:09 pm

As the topic of college student debt load becomes a focus of the U.S. presidential campaign, we must offer new approaches/solutions. It is unethical to expect college graduates to take on such debt without preparing them for a career to help pay it off. And while I do not control the undeniably challenging economy or govern federal student loan rates, I can be part of the change in higher education to redefine what we deliver.

Very few have the luxury to go to college to learn for the sake of learning, without some goals in mind. And very few get hired for a job based on pure intellect. Employers need people who, on day one, have the skills to do a job. Over the longer term, a well-rounded education comes into play.

A just-released survey of college graduates from 2006-2011 by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University found that if given the chance to do it all over again, the majority would choose a different major and participate in more internship and work experiences. The same survey revealed that just half of those grads are working full time. Graduates in the trenches are telling us it is time for change.

Pursuit of the liberal arts is not enough in today's economy. I am not downplaying critical thinking, but I am advocating the need to pair it with a marketable skill. At my institution, business students are required to take half of their courses in the arts and sciences. It is this blending, this mix, that matters. This approach helps expand the way students look at things, the way they communicate, the experiences they have and how they solve problems.

It is also time for college career advisers to step up to the plate. A recent college graduate told a Seattle reporter about his fruitless job search, "I don't even know what I'm looking for." How discouraging for him, and for those of us in this field who help students every day.

It is our responsibility to make sure that does not happen. Students need our help, along with focus and self-esteem. They need to understand where they are going, how they are going to get there, and also have the confidence to know they can make it happen.

The minute they walk onto campus, we should be reaching out to first-year students to help them learn how their passions can translate into a job. It will take a four-year "hire education" approach that encourages exploration, and emphasizes practical experience gained through internships, class projects, activities and networking. At Bentley, we feel so strongly about this that we hired a career adviser dedicated to engaging freshmen and this fall we will introduce all first-year students to a Career Development Introduction seminar which prepares them for their first internship experience.

Students do not necessarily need to be steered into only the hot majors such as computer information systems. But they do need to learn how to integrate a business skill to help carve a niche in public policy or media studies, for example. That's what employers are buying. Go ahead and be a film major, I would tell a student today. Just be sure to learn not only how to make a film but how to produce and sell a film, too.

Stories painting a pessimistic picture for college graduates ring hollow to me. In fact, the students who come through my door are juggling multiple job offers, not complaining about the economy. And the cycle is about to begin again. As we welcome those admitted to the Class of 2016 to campus, I will continue to emphasize how their decisions -- choice of classes, majors, extracurriculars, and engagement with the Office of Career Services -- will affect their future. It is time to hold higher education accountable. If we are not doing our job, how can we expect graduates to do their job ­or even find one?

 
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