Colleges and universities have established career counseling centers to work with soon-to-be graduates as they prepare for their first post-graduate employment. Over the past decade, there have been attempts to "shore up" career counseling, recognizing the economic pressure that American higher education faces from parents, politicians and pundits to find jobs for recent graduates to validate the cost of tuition. College administrators have reached down below the senior year to bring students into the process earlier. They often establish robust internship and externship programs, build stronger alumni networks, and occasionally, work with industry directly to feed graduates into the employment base. Annual job fairs, although typically not as popular as they once were, still attract industry recruiters, especially at institutions where the quality of the education, type of academic programming and the snob appeal of the school make the graduates more attractive on the open market.
These are all good efforts by the collegiate bureaucracy. Parents and alumni councils add their support, working closely with the administration to build connections for recent graduates. At the same time, however, these efforts mask tensions that must be addressed if colleges and universities -- now in a defensive position over sticker price -- are to respond vigorously to the media assault on cost, the rise of for-profits, and the political debate over whether America should encourage most of its citizens to have at least some "college" experience, however they define it.
Most faculty teach and conduct research in clear distinction from other employment because they value intellectual life. Thank goodness given the strong streak of anti-intellectualism that shapes much of American culture. Further, many of these educators train their students accordingly since it is quite natural to replicate themselves by selecting students with bright minds who share similar values and aspirations. More generally and with varying degrees of success, faculty also teach students to communicate, write, apply quantitative methods and use technology. These are precisely the broad brush skills needed for the global economy that continue to make a liberal arts education relevant. What faculty cannot be expected to do, however, is to "close the deal" to move graduates into the workforce. If the admissions dean hands off the class to the academic provost, there is no corresponding handoff to facilitate the movement of students into the workforce. Colleges - charged with lifecycle professional development from "cradle through career" - nurture the cradle but largely ignore the career. The result is damaging for American higher education.
There are just enough stories about college graduates "flipping burgers" to question the relevancy and need for a college degree. Practically, not every American worker needs a college degree to lead a productive work life. In fact, the system is not scaled to provide this level of education for everyone. Further, there is a growing distinction between degrees and credentials, made obvious by the debate on new initiatives like MOOC's. Yet as the global economy becomes more specialized, the need for American colleges and universities to work with graduating seniors and young alumni more intentionally to translate a degree into productive employment has never been more critical. Indeed, a strong, verifiable set of objective metrics demonstrating the value of a degree by pointing to good post-graduate employment statistics may be the best way to soften the political debate over the value and cost of college.
Americans make choices about how their children will be prepared for the future. Higher education can make a good case for the value of a college degree. Its leadership must now make a better case for the practical use of it. For the sake of their graduates, colleges and universities must step up to the plate to close the deal. They need to resource the last "hand off" of graduates into the workforce by building innovative, effective career centers that strengthen the bandwidth of what colleges do for those who attend them. It is in their interest since productive graduates make more dedicated alumni. It is an answer to why students and families take on debt to achieve a college degree. And finally, it addresses the consumer, media, and political criticisms about the value of a college education.
One big idea that must be at the center of a new Obama or Romney administration in January is how business and industry -- working in education "summit" fashion with urgency, empowerment, and a watchful eye on unemployment statistics -- can forge a cooperative partnership between higher education and business - backed by the authority, influence and resources of the federal government --to meet the needs of the global economy.
The rationale is simple. At the end of the day, its good business.