TOPICS > Education > Making the Grade

These key decisions can shape your post-college destiny

April 26, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
This time of year, high school seniors and their families are thinking about where they’ll be headed to college in the fall. In “There Is Life After College,” author Jeffrey Selingo examines how one’s post-college years are influenced by crucial choices made before students even enroll. Selingo sits down with William Brangham for a conversation.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: how life after college can be influenced by choices made before students even enroll, and why it can matter for their financial futures.

It’s part of our weekly education segment, Making the Grade.

William Brangham has our conversation.

It’s a big week for high school seniors across the country. They have got to make those final decisions on where they will go to college next year. To celebrate, celebrities and athletes joined first lady Michelle Obama for a signing day ceremony in New York City today.

FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA: No matter what path any of us on the stage took to our success, we all know that completing your education past high school is the most important thing you can do to reach your dreams. That’s why we’re here. So, while you all might be in awe of us, let me tell you, we are in awe of you.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: High schoolers and their parents are obviously focused on what school they will go to, but a new book argues there are more important things to consider.

The book is called “There Is Life After College.” Jeffrey Selingo is the author. I talked with him yesterday.

Jeff, if I can discern a basic thesis from you book, it’s not so much where you go to college, but it’s what you do while you’re in college. Is that right?

JEFFREY SELINGO, Author, “There Is Life After College”: That’s right.

It used to be as long that, as you had a bachelor’s degree from a college, any college, really, you would be golden in the job market. It was really the way that you got jobs years ago.

But now the fact of the matter is that there’s a lot of noise around the signal of a bachelor’s degree. So it’s really important what you do while you’re there, the experiential learning that you get, internships, projects, study abroad, and activities like that, cocurricular activities, whether it’s athletics or clubs.

And, most importantly, you don’t take on too much debt. The more debt that you take on in college, the fewer options you have after college to take essentially any job you want anywhere in the country, which would be good for your career, and instead you’re basing your career decisions on how much money you’re going to make.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In one of the early chapters of your book, you categorize graduates after college into three categories.

You have the sprinters, the wanderers, and the stragglers. What do those delineations tell us about post-college life today?

JEFFREY SELINGO: Well, it used to be that, again, as long as you went to college, you were a sprinter. You would come out of college and you would have a job. You would usually work in one occupation, sometimes for one employer, for most cases.

But the fact of the matter is that only about a third of students now launch from college in that way. So two-thirds are either wanderers or the stragglers. They take half their 20s to get going in a career. In some cases, those are the wanderers. In other cases, they’re stragglers, and they take most of their 20s.

And what are the markers of those different people? Well, for one thing, sprinters intern at least 80 percent of the time in college.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: While they are in college?

JEFFREY SELINGO: Yes, 80 percent have at least one internship while in college, as opposed to the wanderers. Only about 50 percent of them intern. And the stragglers, only about 20 percent of them intern.

The other big marker is debt. So, sprinters have less than $10,000 worth of debt when they come out of college. The average today is about $30,000. The more you debt you have, the fewer options you have after college.

The other big marker of the stragglers is, 99 percent of them have some college credit, but they don’t yet have a degree. And this is one of the bigger concerns right now, is that 70 percent of students go right on to college after high school, but only about 50 percent of them end up graduating.

So we have a number of millennials now with some college credit and no degree. And, in fact, they make up the bulk of people today in the United States who have some college credit and no degree to show for their efforts.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You report that a lot of employers feel like colleges are not doing a very good job of preparing graduates for the work world. You quote one employer saying that these student have been syllabused to death. What does that mean?

JEFFREY SELINGO: It means that college has a certain cadence to it, right?

You start in September, you end in May, you get a syllabus and a course catalog at the beginning of the semester. It kind of lays out what you need to do. The syllabus tells you when things are due, when papers are due, when tests are due. It’s essentially a recipe to get an A.

You have plenty of breaks. There’s a certain cadence to it. Then these students get into the work force, and the work force is a mash-up of activities. You know, it’s not task-based anymore. It used to be that jobs, you would get a list of things to do every day, you would clock in at 9:00 and clock out at 5:00. No job works like that anymore, but yet our education system is still very task-based in that way.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But you write also that employers as a whole often feel that colleges should be doing a better job of this, but the colleges push back and say, no, these companies are simply offshoring and making us job-train them, when that should be their job.

Who should — where should this responsibility lay?

JEFFREY SELINGO: Well, really, the responsibility lies really with all three groups.

It really lies with colleges to give people both the broad skills they need to succeed not only in the workplace of today, but tomorrow, but also to give them some opportunities for hands-on training. And it’s also lies with the students to go out and get that. Many students just sleepwalk through college. They go there and they think college is going to happen to them.

And then it’s also the role of the employers. And many employers are not — they are kind of — they confuse students on this front. In other words, you have the CEOs of some companies saying, go out and get a broad liberal arts education and then we will train you when you get here.

But then the people hiring at employers, either the line managers or the chief H.R. officers, are then telling students, we need specific skills. We need you to have specific skills.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: If you were to build a recipe for the things that college students really need to be focused on to do to succeed in however you want to categorize success, what are some of those things?

JEFFREY SELINGO: When students are picking a college, they should pick a place, a campus and even a city or an urban area where they are going to be able to get hands-on opportunity.

And if they go to a place in a faraway place, they should figure out, how am I going to get those hands-on experience? So, it’s not just about what you get in the classroom, but it’s also important what you get outside the classroom.

Second piece, don’t take on too much debt. Make sure you go to a place where you’re going to graduate, hopefully in four years, and where you’re not going to take on too much debt. And then the third piece is picking a major.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter what major you pick, because most careers are not related to majors, but you should pick a major where you’re going to work hard, where you’re going to read a lot, where you’re going to write a lot, where the homework is going to be tough, where you’re going to meet some of the best professors and, most important, where your classmates are going to push you.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: When there is such a focus on figuring out what your career is going to be, and trying to be one of those sprinters who dives right into it right away, is there the risk that we might be losing some of the more — some of the richer experiences of college, to learn how to think, how to open your mind, to explore, to simply grow up into a human being?

JEFFREY SELINGO: It used to be that college was for exploration.

The idea was that you would go to college, explore for four years, get that broad education, and then move into the work force and get specific training. Now much of that is supposed to happen in those four years of college.

The problem with exploring too much in college is, it’s very expensive. The cost of college has gone way up. Half of students don’t end up graduating. A third of students end up transferring institutions. So, there’s a lot of friction in the system that we have today.

And that’s why a lot of this exploration, trying to figure out what you want out of life, trying to figure out a career should actually happen outside of the walls of college, this idea of taking a gap year between high school and college or even taking time off in college to try to find yourself, to try to find a career, because the more that happens in college, the fewer experiences you’re going to have outside the classroom, because you’re going to be so focused on those inside-the-classroom experiences.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Jeff Selingo.

The book is “There Is Life After College.”

Thank you very much.

JEFFREY SELINGO: It was great to be here. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Later tonight, PBS’ new debate program, “Point Taken,” asks, is a college degree worth the price tag? Check your local listings.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

SHARE VIA TEXT