We don’t do that in the United States. Instead, we explicitly urge students not to focus on a single track of study. We make the scientists read poetry and the poets study chemistry, pushing our students to learn many things in which they might have no interest, and for which they are unlikely to receive any future compensation.
That’s a good thing. Indeed, it is arguably one of the reasons why innovation remains stronger in the United States than in just about any other country on earth, and why emerging powerhouses like China and Brazil are so interested in sending their students here. But it doesn’t give us the tools with which to tackle the more prosaic issue of post-graduate pay or pay equity.
The question we face now is whether we can afford this approach much longer. Unemployment in the United States still stands around 8 percent; that number is 17 percent among youth aged 16 to 24, and nearly 7 percent for recent graduates with a bachelor’s degree. Several observers have noted that, with employment prospects low and student loan debt at dizzying levels, college is no longer the fail-safe financial proposition it once was. For young women — who are now the majority of college students, who are more likely to hold student loans and who still earn, overall, 18 percent less than their male counterparts do — that equation is particularly fraught.
As a result of these harsh realities, the time has come for even the most elite undergraduate institutions to integrate economic concerns more explicitly into the college experience. At the very least, we need to better acknowledge the very real pressures that our students, and particularly our female students, are likely to face.
We don’t need to become trade schools, or demand that every undergraduate take courses in accounting or marketing. But we should offer our students more exposure to the real skills they will eventually need. We should make practical courses in areas such as finance or negotiation more widely available, even if not for academic credit. And we should be urging more young women who continue to shy away from math, engineering and computer science to go into these high-growth, high-paying fields of study.
At Barnard, we are trying to bring more of these practical yet essential opportunities to our students. In our Athena Center for Leadership Studies, for instance, we offer an entire curriculum in leadership skills, including seminars in finance, negotiation and presentations. And, time and again, we’ve seen the benefits that mentoring delivers. With Mayor Bloomberg’s Commission on Women’s Issues, we launched Mentor It Forward, a speed-dating of sorts for New York City college students and the women in the workplace they aspire to be. On campus, we also pair Barnard students with alumnae at the height of their professions because there’s nothing like getting the real story from someone who’s been where you want to go.
Such measures will not instantly close the pay gap confronting young women, or address the broader set of social pressures that continue to confound and confuse them. But they at least acknowledge that there is a problem, and that there are real things colleges can do to address it.
Debora Spar is the president of Barnard College.
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