It’s a question that both high school seniors about to pick a college and even those ready to graduate with a bachelor’s degree often hear around this time of year: What are you going to do with a degree in philosophy? Or English Literature? Or sociology?
As the price tag of college skyrockets and the job market for recent graduates tightens, students and their parents increasingly view college as training for that first job out of college rather than a broad education for life that provides them with the ability to learn and move through multiple jobs and careers.
The result is that far fewer college students these days pick majors in the traditional arts and sciences (English, math, and biology, for example). The number of undergraduate credentials in those fields has tumbled from almost half of those awarded in 1968 to about 25 percent today. Most degrees are awarded in occupational or vocational areas such as education, communications, and business, which is now the most popular undergraduate degree.
Even those with practical degrees, however, are finding the job market out of college challenging. The so-called “underemployment rate” is 44 percent for graduates aged 22 to 27, meaning the jobs they have don’t require a bachelor’s degree. With many big companies now hiring former interns as full-time employees, students who have a bevy of internships on their résumés often have a leg up in the job search.
But the vast majority of soon-to-be college graduates — particularly those with liberal-arts degrees — face the difficult task of translating their college experience to something useful in the workforce. The problem is that most college seniors are simply not ready for professional jobs. They either they don’t have the hard skills in computer coding and data analysis, or more important, the soft skills employers are seeking, such as problem solving and the ability to communicate and collaborate with co-workers and customers.
To fill those gaps between what’s learned in college and what’s needed in the workforce, a new group of education providers have emerged to give students real-world skills in short chunks of time, sometimes just a few weeks, as an added experience to college. These so-called boot camps, which include FullBridge and General Assembly, as well as those that are specific to schools at Dartmouth College, Middlebury College, and the University of California at Berkeley, teach everything from project management to reading a financial balance sheet. And, of course, they come on top of four years of college tuition, with price tags that are in the thousands of dollars.
I recently visited one of these boot camps in Seattle run by a relatively new company called Koru. Its three-and-a-half-week program, which costs $2,749, puts college students and recent graduates through a rigorous real-world project that is commissioned by a local employer. The project focuses on developing business skills not often practiced in college, such as interviewing customers, coming up with product ideas, and presenting to executives, and all of it is done on the tight deadlines frequently found in the business world. The project is supplemented with career coaching and short classes on business communication, networking, and small-group discussions with hiring managers.
“It’s not that these skills are not learned in college, they are not taught,” said Josh Jarrett, a former official at the Gates Foundation, and a co-founder of Koru. “They are too often learned by osmosis, and we’re focused on them explicitly.”
Take a business presentation, for example. When students do presentations for a class in college they are often graded on the content, not on how it’s delivered. They also usually only do it once, so they never get a chance to immediately apply the feedback they hear to improve on their work. Polishing communications skills is one of the areas of focus in the Koru program because, as Jarrett explained, it is one “skill easiest to improve in a short amount of time.”
At Koru, students practice various business skills almost like athletics, by repeating them over and over again, with each session followed by feedback given in the moment.
The day I was in Seattle, the 16 students in the program were working on a project to design a social-media campaign for a local company, Porch, that connects home owners with contractors. Working in groups of four, the students developed surveys, fanned out into the city to interview potential customers, and studied competitors. In practice sessions for their presentations, Koru leaders evaluated everything from the students’ language to how they dressed and their non-verbal cues. At times, it was tough feedback that clearly the students had never heard in four years of college.
Kristen Hamilton, a co-founder, said Koru developed its curriculum by talking with employers, particularly growing companies that have a need for recent college graduates who could move quickly through an organization. “We asked them to show us who are best entry-level employers and asked why they succeeded,” she said. “We wanted to know what it was about them that made them stand out.”
One of those employers was Zulily, the Seattle-based online clothing retailer. The company has partnered with several cohorts of Koru students on projects to help build its men’s business and better attract expectant moms. Karen Jobe, a human-resources manager, told me that Koru “teaches students how to fail,” a skill needed in start-up companies and definitely not taught in college.
“They have gone through college and told they’re great and then come into a job and don’t know how to receive feedback and improve on that feedback,” Jobe said. Zulily has hired about a dozen Koru graduates so far.
As I spent the day with the Koru students in Seattle, I wondered why they didn’t have such boot camps when I graduated from college 20 years ago. Maybe it’s because we didn’t need them. Employers did a lot more on-the-job training back then, and college seniors were much more prepared for the job market than they are now.
Today, as I have found interviewing students for my next book on transitioning to the workforce, too many college students are wandering through school unsure of their major or what they want to do in life. As a result, many of the students who haven’t worked much fail to pick up the needed experiential learning opportunities, such as internships, to stand out in a tough job market. Meanwhile, colleges have showered students with posh amenities and added a ton of advising services to help them solve nearly any problem they face without forcing them to figure it out on their own. Many graduates end up drifting through their 20s underemployed and frustrated in dead-end jobs, or unemployed altogether.
Programs like Koru give students real-world experience in a short amount of time, and perhaps more important, the confidence and context they need for today’s job market. Given the amount of money parents and students spend on a degree, there is no reason colleges shouldn’t do the same by providing both a broad education that helps someone eventually find their fifth job and the specific training and skills needed for their first one.