College: Salvation, Sprints, and Stats: Can You Keep Up?

“’It didn’t prepare me at all for the real world,’ Jessica said somewhat abruptly”. This sentence begins Jessica’s description of her experience at one of the US News top 10 national liberal arts colleges in the US. The quote, from Jeffrey Selingo’s new book, There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow, also captures in dramatic fashion one of Selingo’s main themes. The book details how schools, educators and students should approach education in ways that are significantly different from those of students a generation ago. Selingo provides useful guidelines for students to achieve success in the increasingly competitive job market. Much of what he shares is supported by data that is nestled alongside specific stories of students, schools and businesses that seem to be doing things right. Selingo does not call so much for disruptive innovation or that other meme for change, a paradigm shift; he does, however, outline the ways that a college degree needs to be far more than a piece of paper that affirms a certain amount of coursework and grades while at the same time permitting students to follow their bliss:

Exploration, of course, was what college used to be: the informative stage between adolescence and adulthood. The training for employment we now seem to expect of colleges and universities came later, either in graduate school or on the job. But today, with the cost of college approaching $ 240,000 for four years students (and their parents) demand a set of specific skills that can land them a job at graduation. They still want the broad education — critical thinking, writing and communication, and analytical reasoning — as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of outside-the-classroom, hands-on experiences, particularly internships.

Selingo is smart enough to know that the rhetorical battles that take place weekly between those who want education to be liberal arts based in order to instill what he calls a “broad education”, and those who attempt to demonstrate the need students now have for add-on experiences and some depth of understanding about how to solve real problems in the world are not worth the words that are salvoed across the media. Like so much else in life there is some truth to both positions. The kinds of students that Selingo describes as ready for the world have come to be known as T-Shaped. These students have a horizontal line of skills that spans across a broad range of disciplines; they also have a vertical line of expertise in one or more areas. But whereas most pundits or educators stop the T student description at this point, Selingo points out one other set of skills students now need:

There’s more to being T-shaped than just having breadth and depth, however. It’s also about having balance and the agility to pick and choose from a set of knowledge and skills, as they are needed. Undergraduates need to cultivate T-shaped skills to prepare for the economy they’ll face after graduation.

Selingo is what some would call a hard taskmaster. For him, students must develop many more skills than previous generations of students ever even thought of, let alone learned and internalized.

And yet, at the same time, there are many in education and in the media who believe there is far too much stress placed on students today both in high school and college. They have a point. Studies show that students are more depressed, medicated, and unhappy than they have been in previous generations. And while this may well be true, the world has changed, as I have said, in ways most could never have imagined 30 years ago. It is far harder to stand out. The stress is there because the competition has increased. Getting into top schools or high profile internships or jobs require strategic plans and increasingly, to use a popular meme, “the help of trained professionals”. If we go back a bit in time it was generally true the competition for jobs was mostly local, then it stretched to regional, and then it was country specific. Today, globalization has made the search for top talent take place across time zones, continents and governments. To earn an offer from top firms in finance or Silicon Valley or a big consulting firm is far harder than getting accepted to a top 10 university:

Placed on each chair across the room was a one-page description of Goldman’s intern recruiting events with the deadlines to apply and the dates for interviews. It was already too late if you wanted a technology internship; most of the other interviews would come in January. Goldman Sachs holds events like this on about sixteen university campuses nationwide, sending a clear but unstated message that if you don’t go to one of those schools, you probably won’t intern at Goldman Sachs. Lauren Goldberg, a recruiter from Goldman Sachs, jumped up onstage to welcome the group. Since very few gathered here had a chance of getting an offer (about 59,000 students apply for 2,900 intern positions each year), her good cheer was helpful.

As an undergraduate (and for high school students too), the stress on those going for the top spots is, to put it bluntly, earned. With acceptance rates under 10% at the top ranked colleges and internships at places like Goldman at 5%, “many are called but few are chosen.” But the same time, however, the vast majority of students seem not to have the desire to make it to the top. The data is there to demonstrate that for many students in secondary school and in college the amount of time spent on academics has decreased significantly from previous generations:

College students spend only about a quarter of their week on academic pursuits — going to class or studying, or working at a job — leaving about half of their week for socializing and recreation, according to one survey.
 No wonder colleges have spent hundreds of millions of dollars building palatial campus recreation centers with climbing walls in the last decade: students use them as often as they use classrooms. Friday has become the “collegiate day of rest,” with many campuses offering far fewer classes on Fridays than other days, effectively training students for four-day workweeks.”

Compelling evidence exists that for the majority of students the academic experience, in college and in high school, is not filled with stress and hard work. Selingo cites one book that has not received as much attention as it should — Academically Adrift:

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, published a book called Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses that described just how much students actually learned in college. The results were devastating — at least to students and parents who had mortgaged their life to pay for school. The pair found that 45 percent of the 1,600 students they tracked at a diverse set of twenty-five colleges and universities made no gains in their writing, complex reasoning, or critical thinking skills during their first two years of college. After four years, the news wasn’t much better: 36 percent failed to show any improvement.

What do the seemingly contradictory statistics about overstressed students and students who aren’t learning anything mean? It is pretty clear — students fit into different categories. Some students who are trying to stand out have a harder time than ever. Students, who do not want to work particularly hard, but still want to earn a high school diploma or a college degree, can do so. Selingo has done his own research and he comes up with three categories of students.

Dorés depiction of Dante’s “Selva Oscura”

Three Fates and Dante

Based on data from a survey he created, Selingo learns that traditionally aged college students can be divided fairly neatly into 3 groups, each composing about a third of the whole group. While membership to these groups is somewhat fluid, there is still a sense that we are entering into a kind of sorting that is more reminiscent of religious outcomes than which house a student will get into in the Harry Potter books. His model follows Dante far more than J.K. Rowling. Selingo serves as our Virgil and Beatrice and we are stand-ins for Dante as he travels through the Commedia. We visit and talk to those who are blessed, those who have to suffer awhile before being brought to heaven and those who are doomed, if not damned (this is hyperbole on my part, but the tripartite structure that divides students into three realms of experience and three futures does have religious echoes). Instead of taking us through hell, purgatory and heaven, Selingo describes the three kinds of students and the life outcomes they can expect. Selingo gives us data but he lets the individual stories of students negotiating their own “selva oscura”. Unlike Dante, however, Selingo starts his and our journey with the winners. He calls them sprinters:

Sprinters

Sprinters by their nature start fast right out of the gate from college. Some have the perfect job lined up, and others are laser-like in their focus, moving from job to job quickly up the career ladder. But speed alone doesn’t define this group. Some are slow but methodical, assembling the building blocks for a successful career early on, mostly by going to graduate or professional school and investing more in their own human capital before hitting the job market. Others collect the right internships and postgraduate experiences, which add key markers to their résumés so they are ready to pounce when the right opportunity comes along. While we imagine this is how most graduates should start out, only one-third of twentysomethings are Sprinters.

Sprinters do not fit one template. Some move quickly while others take the slow and steady approach, and others learn how to get experiences outside of college that add luster to their resumes and skills they can bring with them without further training by the companies themselves.

Selingo thinks most of us believe students graduating colleges should be ready to compete as sprinters. I am not so sure. Who is the “we” who believes this? Most who work with students see there are many who do not have what it takes to be sprinters. It doesn’t take much to find out that sprinters are not in the majority; most were not sprinters in high school, so it is the exception who turns into one in college (this does happen enough that it is still worth noting).

Those that he calls the twentysomthings who become successful sprinters typically start “training” at an early age. Parents provide support — economic, emotional and academic that prepares them for future success. Selingo more or less contradicts himself when he says that sprinters can be ‘slow and methodical”. I tend to agree more with Angela Lee Duckworth, the person who established the grit scale and whose just published book, Grit is well worth reading: “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon not a sprint.” Many of those who have support early on can, at age 22 or so, be ready to take continue to push forward into competitive jobs and graduate schools. At the same time, however, it is worth pushing the running trope a bit more. Anyone who follows the competitive world of marathons will know that the fastest in the world can run a 4:40 mile for 26 miles. Anyone who has ever run competitively knows how nearly impossibly fast this is.

Whether it is sports or academics records keep falling. The 2 hour marathon might happen and there are students who are taking more than 15 APs and getting all high scores. Training, helped by experts, starting early on, helps anyone. Putting in the required time over years (10,000 hours is cited by some researchers) will help someone become what Malcolm Gladwell calls an Outlier. In other words, to get ahead at the highest level, students need to be willing to work exceptionally hard. Salvation, as the religiously minded would put it, is not easy: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

Selingo not only describes the externals necessary for the successful race to the top, he also quotes the founders Of Koru, a jobs platform, about the internal traits sprinters have that make them superstar hires:

The rock stars were those who, over and over again, stepped up to solve problems,” Hamilton said. “They were very focused on solving problems that seemed to be in front of them, without waiting to be assigned a project or told what to do next.” Hamilton and Jarrett found common threads in what they heard and used them to create the “Koru 7,” the seven competencies they identified as most predictive of high performance: grit, rigor, impact, teamwork, curiosity, ownership, and polish.

What stands out about these competencies is that they are not tied to a particular major or field. In other words, it is not as if specific major would, in and of itself, lend it to developing these particular competencies more readily than another. What is also worthy of note is that these competencies are not easy to teach in any class. Instead, much of what Koru thinks predicts future success comes from extracurricular activities, internships and job experience. If Koru’s competencies are accurate they make a strong argument for students to attend 4-year schools with campuses and dorms. But the cost of attending these schools may not be worth it if students do not learn how to learn and learn how to compete in a race, be it a sprint or marathon. Selingo quotes Richard Arum, one of the authors of Academically Adrift to support his contention that only a minority of students are ready to find rewarding work: “There are exceptional students,” Arum said. “There are just not enough of them.” He is concerned about the vast middle, the Wanderers. “The system is not working for large numbers of students”.

Wanderers

“Wanderers, part of a growing number of young adults I met who are drifting through their midtwenties and largely treading water in the years after college graduation. My own survey of twentysomethings found that 32 percent of young adults are Wanderers, although some are wandering more than others. As a whole, they are more likely to go to public colleges, where they are less than certain of their major when they enter. Eighty-five percent of them after graduation begin working in a job unrelated to their major.”

The statistic about Wanderers working a first job not related to a major might make some who support liberal arts education happy. They often say it is not the major but the skill sets that matter to jobs and the future. Forbes puts it this way: That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket

Unfortunately, the research cited in Academically Adrift and by Selingo shows that many students simply do not have the skill sets necessary to find a job that requires critical thinking and writing skills regardless of their major. In other words, those students who sprint out in front with a liberal arts degree (they have learned the skills valued for by almost any company or job) are going to be rewarded. But the job market is not a place where everyone wins a trophy, not by a long shot. The Wanderers may be getting a degree but are, in many cases, taking jobs that do not require a college degree. These students find it difficult to find a direction that they should head in that will lead to a good job and some long-term security. Selingo’s data demonstrates what many do not know about how much, or I should say, how little, the value of an undergraduate degree now means: “nearly half of college graduates in their twenties are underemployed, meaning the jobs they can get don’t require a bachelor’s degree.”

Not surprisingly, many of these students eventually return to school. Given the large number of people who now have undergraduate degree but do not necessarily have the skills to secure a job that requires specific skills, many return to school:

The master’s degree is quickly becoming the new bachelor’s degree. In 2013, about 760,000 master’s degrees were awarded, a number that has increased 250 percent since 1980 and is rising at a much faster pace than those earning a bachelor’s degree. Nearly 30 percent of recent graduates are back in school within two years of getting a bachelor’s degree For them, graduate school is akin to having a job because it gives them structure and direction.

The dramatic increase in students going on to graduate school helps to prove Selingo’s observation that there is now a much longer timetable to adulthood. The twentysomehtings who are not sprinters (and some who are) are taking much longer to become independent. This does not simply mean that there are more of more of the 18–34 group now live with parents than with significant others. It also means that this group needs more time to develop skills and to test the waters of different opportunities. At least one study says that most people will switch jobs 8 times before they are 30. The wanderers (and sprinters too) often go from job to job, in some cases from one career field to another. Some jobs are not great, but people hope that something will work out.

It is important to note the successful Wanderers are unafraid to try new things and to move where the jobs are. They are unafraid of change and willing to take risks. They have the character traits that will help them stand out. These Wanderers can then join the Sprinters as a part of the elite who move through and up positions of responsibility. Selingo tries to give this middle group of wanderers a set of directions/case studies that will help them learn how to move into the the fast lane. He does not, however, have much in the way of saving grace for the last group he describes — the Stragglers.

Stragglers

Selingo informs us that about a third of the students he surveyed fall into this least desirable category. They are not wandering across jobs and careers, slowly making their way up; they are, by the standards of finishing college, lost souls:

He was a prototypical Straggler. After a decade of dead-end jobs and false starts at a handful of colleges, Josh told me he was finally settling into something he cared about: woodworking.

There is nothing wrong with becoming a woodworker or a host of other things that do not require a college degree. However, there is something wrong with the fact it takes a Straggler a decade to figure this out. The vast majority of high school seniors say they want to attend college (well over 90%). Over 65% of them go on to college. Selingo points out, and I think quite rightly, that far too many students head off to college because they really don’t have a clue what they want to do, but feel compelled to go to school because the other options — the military or low-paying jobs — are not what they want either. Students who are not motivated to do well should think carefully about whether they should go off to college right away. Far too many people start college unprepared and unmotivated. They do not do well early on and this undermines what the somewhat limited motivation some have had. There is a lot of talk about the necessity to learn from failure, but flunking classes at college dos not often lead to a resurrection that will lead to long term success. Those who are not committed to studying tend to end up not finishing and then flounder about looking for a path to take.

There are some 12.5 million twentysomethings with some college credits and no degree. Indeed, those in their twenties make up by far the largest share of the 31 million adults in the United States who left college short of a degree. In many ways, these young adults are no better off financially than high school graduates who never attempted college at all. Employers, after all, don’t advertise that they want “some college.” They want a degree.

I think that Selingo is wrong. I don’t think that these Stragglers who have some college are “no better off” than those who don’t go to college; in many cases, they are in worse shape. The military, for example, helps people to build character, instill skills and afterward gives them financial help to attend school. In addition, many colleges try to give special consideration to those who have done service for their country. Those who have gone to college and then stopped have wasted time and money.

Selingo does not address what I would call the fourth third of the 18–30 group. A third of the 18–30 group do not attend college. Given the focus of his book, it is not a surprise he does not mention them except in passing. Many are doomed to low paying jobs. But it’s also true that, unlike the Stragglers, they do not have student loan debt to pay off. The 1.9 trillion dollar student loan debt is one of the biggest issues facing the US. Those who borrowed money to go to school but never finished are unlikely to obtain a high paying job, but they must, no matter what, pay off their loans. Bankruptcy will not exempt a person from paying off student debt. These stragglers are put in situations where they cannot risk quitting a job to go back to school and they cannot often take on more debt. Far too many stragglers are low-income and far too many have no safety net. Many of the solutions that Selingo proposes do not apply to either the Stragglers or those who are not pursuing college at all. This ends up accounting for over half the population of typical college age people. But for those who are committed to earning a degree, Selingo attempts to provide useful answers to broad questions about what will help students and recent graduates find internships, jobs, and a range of alternatives that prepare people for future success:

How can young adults navigate the route from high school through college and into an increasingly perilous economy? What are the fundamental experiences that shape their success in the job market? What skills prove most helpful? And most of all, why do some prosper while others fail?

Roads, Ramps and Detours

As with most books these days that serve as a guide to life, Selingo gives us lists. The are three ways of doing this and four of doing that, but this is less a self-help book filled with what might be designated as bullet points on a PowerPoint presentation than it is an overview of the positive actions students need to take in order to prepare themselves for the world that they will enter:

1. Be Curious, Ask Questions, and Be a Learner for Life

2. Build an Expertise, Take Risks, and Learn the Meaning of Grit

3. Every Job Is a Tech Job

While Selingo gives three less than what anyone would call secrets to success, he backs up each of these broad abstractions with stories of students who took these abstractions and made them real. He also includes persuasive data. The third bit of wisdom that Selingo proposes is, perhaps, the most controversial, although I have chosen this phrase as a mantra for quite some time. I use it when I talk to students and families both in secondary school and college. I have borrowed it from Dan Elron, a managing partner at Accenture for innovation. He, like Selingo, also encourages students to become T-Shaped in college.

Throughout the book, Selingo underscores the fact that the way most students go through education now is not what most think of when describing the college experience — only 20% of students go directly to a 4 year residential college. Those who do, however, benefit in a number of ways. The graduation rate is higher and in some cases far higher than those students who attend college part time, or at non-residential colleges or who have take significant time off due to money issues or other crises. These students also learn many of the life skills that come with taking part in student activities, internships and mentoring programs.

And yet what Selingo promotes throughout the book at what he calls “detours” that take students out of the highway that leads straight from high school to college and then on to graduate school or a job. His thesis that education in college has begun to shift significantly from what it was a generation ago and that it will shift even move over the coming years:

We no longer should think of college as one physical place we go to at one time in our lives at the age of eighteen. Yet for too many American teenagers that’s exactly how they are programmed. The result: finding a pathway to a fulfilling career and a meaningful life has become much more difficult than it ever should have been.

In describing the new pathways, Selingo shifts tropes. He no longer focuses on sprinters reaching toward success; instead, he places us on the highway of education and life. His virtual highway has on and off ramps, detours and fast lanes. He does not directly promote the cliché life is journey not a destination, but the many examples he provides describe the new way education and work will intertwine throughput our lives.

The detours and off-ramps which twentysomehtings may take will not prevent them from succeeding in life. In fact, for many these detours are necessary. He does not promote or promise an easy way to the fast lane as so many authors do today — their work often sits on the shelves of airport bookstores and sounds good but rarely has any long term effect. Rather than a fast and furious drive, Selingo encourages the 18–30 demographic to take a metaphorical cross country trip with stops at places that nourish minds and prepare them for successful careers:

There would be multiple on-ramps, and once on these pathways, they could switch directions or exit at virtually any point. This is what the bachelor’s degree and a college education is going to look like for more students in the future. You can already take some of these different career on-ramps right now.

What follows is a brief overview of some of the detours that Selingo (and I) find useful.

Gap, Bridge or Leap Year

Selingo thinks that a year spent doing things in the world after graduating from high school should be something many more students should do. I have written several times about gap years and I have seen both professionally and personally how gap years change the lives of students who do them.

The term that some who have created start ups for those interested in gap years is bridge year. The change in name may not seem important but to Selingo (and to me), it is. A bridge connotes creating a way to cross from one side to another. A gap has the opposite connotation. The Brits have it right: mind the gap is meant to save us from injury A bridge year creates connections between academic and experiential learning. It permits student to develop skills that are not taught in the classroom. Students have a whole year to mature and for some this gets them hungrier for the education ahead. For more than a few, however, the often high cost is an issue, but more programs are now offering financial aid, and some are low cost to begin with. Some students do a wonderful gap year while living at home.

Selingo outlines the different kinds of bridge years student should consider:

A gap year in which students collect valuable work experience while trying to figure out what problem they want to solve in life.

A combination work-education route where students toggle between a campus for a few weeks at a time and a real-world job.

An easy-on/ easy-off lane so that students might exit after twelve months or twenty-four months to take a job and reenter a few years later when their skills need an upgrade before returning to the workforce.

That’s the difference with taking a detour like a gap year early in life: it’s easy to find an on-ramp back to your original route. Nothing is permanent when you don’t have the obligations of adulthood.

He believes bridge experiences, be they exotic or local, will not only help a student in college but out in the world too. The call for students to become global is a part of most admission office’s marketing efforts. A gap year can, in some cases, help a student stand out when applying to schools. Once enrolled research shows gap year students graduate faster and in larger numbers than their fellow students. I have yet to meet a student who regretted doing a gap year. Many people now out in the world wish they had taken advantage of a gap year before work and responsibilities prevented this option.

I feel I do need to add that there are some who make a gap year a long vacation For them getting back into the routine of studying may be a challenge. But ths represents a minority of students. The ones who follow Selingo’s various alternatives will grow far more than they even know.

Pit Stops

While there are many who feel they cannot take a year off on their journey from secondary school to college, Selingo writes convincingly about some of the alternatives that students now take before, during or after college.

Boot Camps

Boot camps are short, often intensive programs, that attempt to teach specific skills or help students learn things that will let them stand out to recruiters for internships or jobs. Boot Camps cost a lot less than going to graduate school and also have a great deal more flexibility. Some would argue the skills they teach are more marketable than what students might learn in a specific graduate program. Top graduate programs will, in almost all cases, help students find opportunities. But this cannot be said about all programs. Boot camps are no guarantee for job placement, but they are useful for many who take them.

Coding

“Anyone who graduates from college now who does not know how to code is essentially illiterate.” So said a high powered Silicon Valley guy at a party I attended. While this statement may have come in part from the alcohol consumed, it nevertheless dramatizes the increasing importance for coding in most jobs these days. No one will ever be at a disadvantage who knows how to code.

Some legislators and educators now perceive coding as more important than foreign language skills. Florida is the first state to consider letting students do coding instead of foreign language in order to earn a high school degree. For students who only take two years of foreign language it is very unlikely they will have more than just basic skills. A student who spends two years learning to code may well have employable skills.

To fill the gap that students have coding boot camps have sprouted up everywhere. A Google search demonstrates that there are virtual camps as well as places people go to for full intensive learning.

Soft Skills

The boot camps that Selingo spends a lot of time describing are the ones that teach skills that are often called “soft”. By soft both Selingo and employers are not taking about anything easy. Instead, soft skills are much like the competencies I cited earlier. Leadership, teamwork grit, polish etc. are not typically things that can be taught directly in a class, and yet they are invaluable to most jobs. Some boot camps attempt to train students in these skills, not by having them take tests, but by giving them lots of direct feedback about real world problem solving and critical thinking:

General Assembly, a “boot camp”, offers classes in practical skills from web design to social media marketing. In just its four years of existence, more than 240,000 students have taken individual classes at General Assembly. Each class usually last a few hours and costs anywhere from $ 30 to $ 60. Another 12,000 students have paid around $ 12,000 for full- and part-time, multiweek courses in the fourteen cities where General Assembly operates its “campuses.”

General Assembly and other start-ups provide services that help recent graduates to develop skills that businesses now, in many cases, expect job applicants to have. The amount of in-house training at companies has dropped dramatically over the last generation. Students are expected to have some of the technical and interpersonal skills they need from day 1.

Many people however were not aware of the skillsets that are most valuable. A degree may signify a student has completed courses but it does not prove the student has the skills they may need.

Boot camps can be a cost effective way of gaining some of these skills. Rather than enrolling for a year or two in graduate programs that can cost upward of $70, 000-$100, 000 recent grads can spend relatively little but get a lot.

MOOCs (Massive On-Line Open Courses)

Selingo does not spend much ink writing about MOOCs. It isn’t that he does not value them, it’s just that he has written about them before both in a book, MOOC U. and in a number of articles.

A full MOOC can be the equivalent of boot camp. For example, I know students who have learned coding through MOOCs. But MOOCs can also be a quick pit stop for a student (or anyone else) to learn something fast. Selingo does not worry about the low completion rate of MOOCs — something that many critics underscore. In a New York Times piece he describes how MOOCs get used:

But those metrics don’t take into account how MOOCs are being used right now. Students can register, with no financial risk, for as many courses as they want. Some might want to sample a particular lecture, or prepare a business plan for investors, or take a lesson for a presentation the next day.

Call it “just-in-time education.” These students hadn’t planned to complete the course, and they have nothing to lose when they stop taking it. The MOOC provides learning in chunks, at a student’s own pace.

Kevin Carey, whose book The End of College, predicts that hundreds of colleges will be closing down in the next decade due to the high cost of going to a campus and the low cost of MOOCs. I recommend Carey’s book and have written about it. I don’t agree with a number of things he predicts, but there are signs of wear in the traditional education system as several liberal arts colleges have just announced they are shutting their doors. We can expect more schools to close but I am not sure it will amount to hundreds at least not in the next few years.

In addition to current college students and those who have left school, students in secondary school can learn valuable skills over the summer (and for some during the academic year) by taking MOOCs. It is still an open question if these MOOCS will help students get accepted to selective colleges but at least some admission Deans have encouraged students to take them. I encourage student to do so if they have the time and inclination. I have learned a great deal form MOOCs.

Inconvenient Truths and the Hermeneutics of Unmasking

In a book with a lot of good information and insights Selingo makes some claims made that will not go over well among the majority of administrators and educators who work at the majority of colleges and universities in the US. For those not familiar with the phrase “hermeneutics of unmasking” it is a rather erudite way the philosopher Paul Ricoeur describes the active and systematic way we should question most of what we take to be common and true wisdom. Selingo is not a philosopher, but he does hold up to scrutiny a few “sacred truths” that many have when it comes to thinking about colleges and education.

Reputation

Last year, Frank Bruni, the New York Times columnist, released a book, Where You Go Is Not Who You Will Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. As the title makes clear, the book focuses on how many who have done well in life did not attend the few schools ranked at the top of the US News survey of colleges and universities. The book is well worth reading, although many of his case studies — students whose stories he tells — do attend schools that are in fact in the top 50 or so schools in the rankings. His book, and virtually all the marketing materials put out by most colleges, and what all college counselors emphasize that students should not focus on reputation as a very important factor in choosing which schools to apply to and enroll in.

Selingo, on the other hand, demonstrates that at least for some jobs and some companies where you go matters a great deal. These jobs are some of the highest profile jobs in the fields of finance, banking and consulting:

The main event was a presentation by Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street investment bank. About 150 students from UPenn streamed into a large ballroom on the second floor, most of them clad in dark suits with Under Armour and North Face backpacks slung over their shoulders. Placed on each chair across the room was a one-page description of Goldman’s intern recruiting events with the deadlines to apply and the dates for interviews. It was already too late if you wanted a technology internship; most of the other interviews would come in January. Goldman Sachs holds events like this on about sixteen university campuses nationwide, sending a clear but unstated message that if you don’t go to one of those schools, you probably won’t intern at Goldman Sachs.

Framed by a PowerPoint presentation, Winters told the group of fifteen students that the company hires about two dozen people a year for the analytics team by recruiting at about twenty top universities. Some employers, such as Wall Street banks, consulting companies, international brands, and some tech companies, keep their list of target schools deliberately small. They see hiring as an extension of their gold-plated brands, and they tend to recruit only from the very top of the college rankings. “If you don’t go to a top twenty-five university, you’ll never see a recruiter from some companies,” a former president at a well-known public university once told me. “The schools outside the top tier will never tell prospective students that. They make it seem like you can get hired anywhere, but you can’t.”

I can attest to what Selingo’s source describes. There are indeed some companies and businesses that only recruit on a small number of high profile campuses. Most in education would rather have students from all kinds of schools get the chance to interview for internships and jobs with the big brand name companies. It is true that most companies recruit at more than the top 25, but it is not true they visit hundreds of campuses. On-campus visits by companies help students network and get an insider’s perspective of how to pursue an internship or job. It does, therefore, matter where you go. I would be misleading readers, however, if I did not point out that Selingo, like Bruni, knows, based on data, that for most who go to college: “What you do in school is more important than where you go. But there are times when it does matter where you go to school.” In other words, Selingo wants it both ways, and, if one looks carefully at most of the schools Bruni mentions in his book, he does too.

Location

Attend any information session at a college or university and you will hear the speaker highlight the campus and the surrounding town. Every school’s location benefits the students. It should come as no surprise, then, that in the chapterWhy A College’s Location Matters Selingo makes a case that locations matters — a lot. Schools located near or in a limited number of locations around the US provide opportunities for hands on experience, internships and networking that most school cannot.

One of Selingo’s case studies is American University in DC. He proves, to me at least, why students interested in politics, NGOs and some other fields will have opportunities at AU that very few other schools can match (the same could be said, however, about Georgetown and George Washington U.):

Even in a virtual age, when it is easy to connect with anyone anywhere, a college’s physical place matters more than ever before to its graduates’ ultimate success in the job market. As the importance of off-campus experiences increases, students at schools in out-of-the-way places — especially areas without strong regional or national brands or colleges without deep pockets — often struggle to find the kinds of internships and work experiences nearby that are necessary to gain the skills employers want. (Emphasis mine)

Nowhere is that more evident than in California’s Silicon Valley. Each summer, thousands of college students descend on the technology mecca to work as interns at a mix of start-ups and Fortune 100 companies. During those three months, these companies are looking for the best students in their intern pools — as well as those at other firms — and putting a full-court press on them to commit to permanent jobs after they graduate. On almost any given day, in places from San Francisco to San Jose, companies host intern events that range from simple networking discussions to lavish parties. Facebook sponsors the most popular one of the summer — a carnival just for interns. Such perks, once reserved for second-year law- and business-school internships, have now filtered down to undergraduates in fields where there is a shortage of talent. (Emphasis mine)

Whether it be Boston, New York, San Francisco, or D.C. there are people places and things nearby that can help a student learn more about a field of study or how to network or how to get a selective internship. Students who go to schools in California will have many start-ups and Silicon Valley stalwarts come to campus to recruit. Selingo says there are vibrant communities in midsize cities and college towns. His list will generate some discussion about which city has been left out, but I do think the point he makes about location has merit. More students need to consider whether a school far from the hotbeds of innovation can provide the same opportunities as schools in the midst of a particular focus (e.g. pharmaceuticals or finance or tech):

But if you choose that small-town route, be prepared to spend extra time finding real-world work opportunities outside of school and in cities. Often that means you’ll need to head off to a metro area for a semester or over the summer to get the most beneficial experiences.

I know many who have gone to small liberal arts schools in rural locations who now are, by any measure, very successful. But the way people get jobs now has, in many respects, changed. What is one of the most important (and increasingly required) experiences a student must have in order to secure a job in many fields?

Internships

I have read over hundreds of resumes from accomplished students. I can safely say I have not seen one, in the last four years, that did not list at least one internship. Many have more than one. These internships consist of far more than getting coffee and making copies of documents. In some cases interns participate in high level strategic meetings, help negotiate billion dollar deals or help create a start up that may be the next big thing. Companies want to give interns a full vetting and if the interns do well this often results in a job offer before the student enters the last year of college:

For most people my age an internship was an afterthought. I worked jobs that earned money but did not help me find out about a career. Things have changed for student; for those who know how to get internships, they can provide experiences that cannot be reproduced in a classroom.. Increasingly, I also see students in secondary school who have already had one or more internships before they head off to college. These internships, if they give the students significant experiences, can help both with admission and with career preparations. Selingo makes it clear that internships are, in many cases, a requirement for consideration for most competitive job opportunities:

Choosing the right internships may be the most important decision you make in college. As Lauren Rivera chronicled in her 2015 book, Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, internships at name-brand organizations are as critical as admission to a selective college. An elite internship “was a signal that candidates had successfully navigated a rigorous screening process. (Emphasis mine)

Internships are increasingly the only way for new applicants to get in the door at some companies. Postings for internships now make up a significant proportion of the overall entry-level job openings in several industries, including engineering, graphic design, communications, marketing, and information technology. (Emphasis mine)

Internships are now a critical cog in the recruiting wheel for Fortune 500 companies and many smaller firms, too. Today, employers hire as full-time workers around 50 percent of the interns who worked for them before they graduated, according to the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University; at large companies (more than ten thousand employees) and in some industries (construction, consulting, accounting, and scientific services) the share of interns who get full-time offers is growing every year and is closer to 75 percent at several of them. (Emphasis mine)

“There was a time when 50 employers came to recruit for interns,” Patricia Rose, director of Penn’s career center, told me. “Now we have 180. They want to wrap up talent before anyone else.” (Emphasis mine)

As companies come to recruit interns, the career services offices at colleges have had to shift their resources to help students in their third year of study prepare for the recruitment season. Selingo sites several schools that have updated the career services office to reflect changes in recruitment and job patters. But he. Like others who track what is going on college campuses, see that much needs to be improved. Career services have typically not been given the funds, staff, or high status in the academic community. This is beginning to change but at many schools the best students can hope for are updated job posting and career fairs as well as résumé feedback. Things like one on one interview prep with people who have experience in the filed rarely happen. Private companies are stepping in and taking over. Those schools that can make career offices more important than climbing walls and sports facilities will be helping to build their reputation in ways that will help the school and the students.

Companies and firms find that hiring those who have completed internships improves the success rate of employees. Those who are in college who are not aware of the necessity of internships are at a significant disadvantage in the search for jobs too. To be a sprinter means getting a head start on internships. It is important to note, however, that the competition for internships at top firms make getting into the top universities look easy. In addition, as mentioned earlier, some of the top firms only recruit for interns are a small number of colleges. While the prospects of getting certain access to certain internships on campus is limited, those who know the other necessary skill to creating opportunities can still rise to the top.

Networking

It almost goes without saying that one of the more important things one needs to learn in college (if not before) is networking. Networking can be as easy as creating a LinkedIn account and reaching out to people to find out more about a particular job or career. But networking happens in much less formal ways on college campuses every day. Students are networking with each other as Selingo says: “Students I interviewed said they found internships by networking with classmates or by participating in on-campus clubs and activities”.

More than one successful person has said that an MBA at a prestigious school is more about networking than it is about learning things in the classroom. Students can learn how networking works in the real world by making it work for them in college. Students should also make sure to take advantage of the alumni network to find people who can provide instructions or useful information. For those who have not been offered an internship, a conversation that impresses an alum may open doors. The same goes for jobs too. If, however, a student is going to impress someone enough to get an offer, then they have to have one other skill that is not often taught in classes.

Only Connect

The importance of knowing how to make connections, and then knowing how to use them, and then to go on to help others learn these skills is the primary reason I chose “only connect” as the title for this blog. Most people think of connections as what happens when people meet and exchange information in some useful way. In some cases, it could be a mentor/mentee relations; in others, it is peers each gaining from and giving to others. All of these forms of connecting are part of what Selingo (and I) see as invaluable assets to students and those starting a career and throughout life. The data is quite persuasive that those who find a mentor early on in life and continue to develop them have a much better chance at finding opportunities than others:

The ability to negotiate ambiguity on the job requires people to think contextually, to provide what I call the “connective tissue” that occupies the space in between ideas. It is the “killer app” of today’s workplaces. People who make these connections do so by following their curiosity and exploring and learning from peers. Knowledge is not only what is in our brains, but also what is distributed throughout our networks. Learning happens by building and navigating those networks.

We Are Our Stories

Selingo and I agree that we need to be able to tell our stories in compelling ways. The phrase I use a lot is that students need to learn how to tell stories in ways that they become a subset of 1. Those who can learn to find the “Luminous Detail ( a phrase from Ezra Pound) that will create unforgettable impression are the ones who will have success earning internships and jobs.

Selingo thinks learning to tell stories is not something taught in college: “Undergraduates gather experiences in college, but no one helps them organize what they learned into an articulate and compelling story.” I am more sanguine about the ability of people to tell stories, and where they learn to tell them. We are, as a species, storytelling animals. We tell stories every day. What many of us do not know is how to shape certain kinds of stories that will sell. By sell, I mean a literal story that might get published, or a story we tell someone in hopes they might want to have a relationship, or a set of words to pitch a start up, or a few well thought sentences that capture our passion and personality in ways that stand out in an interview. The skills it takes to succeed in these different genres of storytelling are at least partly transferable. They arise from thinking and writing well, drinking deeply from the springs of inspiration, and having the imagination to make magic happen with invocation of a spell that begins with “I am”.

Conclusion: without an opinion you are just another person with data”

It should be obvious that I agree with much of what Selingo says in his book. I do think he as at times a bit too complementary of some of the programs and businesses he highlights. He does not often say a “discouraging word” about any of them. I think he would have increased his credibility about some of the start ups to show that they are, like many start ups, trying something new and will experience some bumps or downright breakdowns on the highway of life. He rarely offers counterarguments to some of his assertions. To do so that would add nuance, and it’s true he does not give enough credit to the role that luck plays in to our lives — being in the right place at the right time has helped many.

Selingo’s focus is, for the most part, on individuals. His brief bios of people who have had success finding good jobs (and some who have not) help to humanize his project and findings. If I had one thing I wish he had done more of, it would have been to make sure that those looking for jobs see, to use the cliché, a bigger picture. Selingo does not focus on the larger ethical and moral issues that most people looking for jobs do not incorporate in as important factors the how, where and why. With all the data Selingo provides he does not mention that those who find a career they love look past their own circumstances. In other words, he does not say much about the ones who want to make the world a better place. This cliché may sound trite, but those who do try to change things for the better often do and the effort itself affects their own lives positively. Angela Duckworth (who I cited previously in this piece) cites her data in The New York Times: Analyzing data I’ve collected on thousands of American adults, I’ve found that those who have an enduring passion answer affirmatively to statements like, “In choosing what to do, I always take into account whether it will benefit other people” and “I have a responsibility to make the world a better place.”
There are plenty of examples of self-centered people who have done well, but statistically and ethically speaking it is the best interest of people to become educated citizens who will contribute to the community and country they live in. Those who follow Selingo’s suggestions will find themselves in positions of leadership and do, in my view, have the responsibility to help those around them.

Nevertheless, Selingo is far more informed and forward thinking than many faculty and administrators at colleges who are responsible for helping students learn and find experiences that will give them a much better chance at finding a job that they will love. I hope that many in positions to think about ways to help students succeed after graduation will incorporate some of the suggestions he makes.

Appendix

Stats

Selingo’s books come packed with some of the best stats I have seen when it comes to education. There are far too many for me to include here (and that is a good sign about how much research he has done). I select a few random bits just to get across the point that this book is filled with stories and data that support one another

Perhaps more disturbing is that nearly half of college graduates in their twenties are underemployed, meaning the jobs they can get don’t require a bachelor’s degree. .

One out of four people in their twenties takes an unpaid job simply to show they have work experience, and only one out of ten considers their current job a career.

Nearly six in ten people twenty-five to thirty-nine years old surveyed by Arnett in 2014 — a group he called “established adults” — said they wished they had completed more years of education to move up in their careers. Another 70 percent in that poll expected to go back to school at some point, although some 40 percent were unable to get the credentials they needed because of a lack of money.

In 1989, only 17 percent of twentysomethings had student debt; today, 42 percent do.

The master’s degree is quickly becoming the new bachelor’s degree. In 2013, about 760,000 master’s degrees were awarded, a number that has increased 250 percent since 1980 and is rising at a much faster pace than those earning a bachelor’s degree. Nearly 30 percent of recent graduates are back in school within two years of getting a bachelor’s degree. For them, graduate school is akin to having a job because it gives them structure and direction.

But only about half of college seniors on campuses nationwide say they talk often with a faculty member about their career plans, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement, an annual poll of freshmen and seniors.

I came across a study from Oxford University stating that nearly half of American jobs were at risk of being displaced in the future by automation and artificial intelligence.

According to my own survey for this book, 43 percent of Sprinters had less than $10,000 of loan debt. There is no perfect rule for how much debt is too much, but be sure you’re not above the national average ($ 30,000) or in debt for more than the typical starting salary for a bachelor’s degree ($ 39,000).

Indeed, in my survey, Sprinters were twice as likely as everyone else to be employed within six months after graduation, nearly all of them in jobs related to their major. Meanwhile, only half of the Wanderers were employed — and of those who were working, 85 percent were in jobs unrelated to their major. The bottom line is to make every attempt you can to find a job in the field you want to work in, even if you have to move or take a smaller salary to do so.

Like it or not, we are all in sales today. According to author Daniel Pink, 40 percent of our work time is spent selling something — not just products, but trying to persuade, negotiate, and pitch ideas and techniques.

Scholars have found evidence that where you go to school might have an impact on how you at least get started in your career. In the 2014 book Aspiring Adults Adrift, the authors followed 1,600 students who made the transition from college to the workforce or graduate school. They found students who went to selective colleges made larger gains on a national test of general collegiate skills between their freshman and senior years of college. After they graduated, students with high scores had low levels of unemployment and underemployment.

College (Un)bound

Selingo’s previous book, College (Un)Bound, earned its many accolades.

In this book, he demonstrates through research, interviews and data how colleges and universities have increased the cost of education to the degree that it now takes a quarter of a million to earn a degree from many private colleges and universities (and State universities for non-residents and international students). The binge of building 4 star dorms and Olympic pools raised tuition as the leadership attempted to move their schools up in the rankings. He had a lot to show that these attempts to keep up with or surpass the competition have had negative consequences on many schools and many students and families too. I encourage anyone who wants to know more about how so many schools are facing unmet enrollment goals. The schools have priced themselves out of the market and the debt load is too great to sustain. Those schools that have come up with alternatives have a chance to thrive.

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