The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College students say they want a degree for a job. Are they getting what they want?

(Charles Krupa/AP)

College is increasingly seen by high school students as a means to an end: getting a job. Since the Great Recession, surveys of teenagers — and the choices they are making about their college majors — show that higher education has become less about preparing for life or learning something that interests undergraduates and much more about securing employment.

A recent Harris Poll found that two-thirds of 14- to 23-year-old students want a degree to provide financial security, ranking it above all else when it comes to their motivation for going to college. At the same time, fewer students are majoring in the humanities, according to newly released government data. More flock toward science, technology, engineering and math majors — known collectively as STEM — that they think will burnish their employment prospects.

While unemployment among recent college graduates is at historic lows, underemployment is not. Some 40 percent of college graduates are underemployed, meaning they are in jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.

Colleges have been slow to react to this shift in the mind-set of students, largely resisting efforts to make campuses look and act more like trade schools — and for good reason. Higher education serves multiple missions, among them to prepare citizens for the world, conduct research and assist adolescents in becoming adults. But those missions have become secondary to most students and their families in an era of rising tuition and stagnant wages. Without being gainfully employed, newly minted graduates will find it difficult to enjoy the broad benefits that higher education provides.

That’s why college leaders and faculty members are beginning to recognize they need — at the same time — to prepare students for employment and provide them with a broad education for life. Some schools, such as Emory University, are adding degree programs that combine applied mathematics and statistics with traditional liberal-arts majors. Others, such as the University of Utah, are giving seniors an opportunity to earn certificates before graduation in fields such as data analysis and instructional design.

Those efforts seem to be paying off. Employers are starting to take notice that students are coming out of college armed with skills needed in the job market. Some 60 percent of business executives and hiring managers agree students have the knowledge to succeed in entry-level positions, according to a survey released this week by the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

But the work of colleges to prepare students for the future of work is only beginning. The same survey found that just 34 percent of top executives and 25 percent of hiring managers say students have the skills to be promoted. Many of those skills are soft skills — communication, team work, problem-solving — that are critical in a quickly shifting job market. Entry-level skills change every few years; it’s the habits of learning to learn and navigating the ambiguity of a career that will prove most valuable to undergraduates in the long run.

Higher education “needs to ensure that we are effectively transferring the skills that will serve students well in our tech-driven and knowledge-based economy,” Farnam Jahanian, president of Carnegie Mellon University, told me recently. “This includes reimagining curriculum by enhancing digital core competencies and incorporating human skills.”

For its part, Carnegie Mellon has introduced what it calls “instructional sidecars,” Jahanian said, which embed continuous exposure to communication, critical thinking, collaboration and entrepreneurship into courses.

It shouldn’t be left only to higher education, however, to train the next generation of workers. Employers play an important role, too. And while recruiters say they are increasingly satisfied with the college graduates they’re hiring to take entry-level jobs, employers’ hiring processes often disqualify some of the best candidates.

Recruiters usually receive their initial pool of candidates through a screening process that has largely been taken out of human hands by automated software that scans applications and resumes for certain keywords. “They are trying to mimic the best of human decision-making,” said Peter Cappelli, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs.”

The problem, Cappelli told me, is that “computerized systems are not very flexible. They don’t have judgment. They can’t imagine the job skills or experiences you don’t program into them.” So the barista at Starbucks with the psychology degree might be well qualified for a college-level job, but she just didn’t include the right keywords on her résumé and now counts among the underemployed.

The world of work has changed, while colleges, along with employers, are living in a different era. It’s nearly impossible anymore for colleges to arm students with the vocational hard skills they’ll need to last more than a few years in almost any job after graduation. Most of college graduates’ 20s are spent moving from job to job to further their education and learn additional skills. And the paradox is that job hopping is the primary reason employers are reluctant to invest in workers in the first place.

To prepare for the changing nature of work, colleges need to be more flexible in their academic offerings and employers in how they hire. That way, students will get what they want out of higher education and won’t fall into the trap of underemployment.