Why are so many students “drifting
through college without a clear sense of purpose” and moving back to the family
nest without a job after graduation?
According to a new book, Aspiring
Adults Adrift, colleges themselves are the main culprits. Co-authors and sociologists Richard Arum and
Josipa Roksa, argue that “colleges are disinvesting in faculty and investing in
amenities.” Instead of developing their
students’ characters, the authors say four year universities are devoting their
resources to attracting teenagers to their campuses. Colleges are functioning
like businesses trying to bring in more clients. Too much money is spent on appealing
to the client (student), and too little is spent on teaching these young adults
the skills they’ll need in the outside
world. The authors’ thesis? Colleges and universities are adrift like
their students. Graduates leave with four years of happy memories (college was attractive, after all!) but no
“clear way forward.”
Arum and Josipa Roksa reached this frightening conclusion after assessing a
diverse group of nearly 1,000 recent graduates and evaluating their progress
two years after finishing their undergraduate studies. Almost 25% of these
young adults were still living at home, and nearly 75% were still receiving
some money from mom and dad. More than
half of those surveyed said their lives lacked direction. (!) As for employment:
7% reported being unemployed; 12% said they worked part-time, and 30% were
working full-time, but earning less than $30,000. Half
of those college graduates were receiving less than $20,000 annually!
you’d expect, the media is enjoying a
feeding frenzy over these statistics. Even in Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Bruni couldn’t resist joining the debate
(“Demanding More From College,” 9/7/14) over why so many young adults are
adrift after graduation. Not that I blame him.
As the mother of 23 year old twins, I find myself inexorably drawn into
the finding work after college discussion—depressing as I may find it. While Max and Sarah are as different as night
and day, neither of my twins has yet found full-time employment.
It’s not surprising that my
daughter on the autistic spectrum hasn’t found a job, despite overcoming the
odds and graduating cum laude from Pace University with the class of 2014. Making phone calls, sending out resumes and
cover letters, and going on interviews are extreme
challenges for a young adult with an autistic spectrum disorder. And forget about networking! Just explaining the concept of networking to
Sarah would probably take at least an hour.
Even if she understood the nuances of networking, such subtle social
maneuvers would be impossible for Sarah to implement. Instead, Henry and I must network on her
behalf—not an easy task even for proud and determined parents like us. For the time being, Sarah lives in the
family nest—albeit reluctantly.
Almost every day she tells me: “It’s
not healthy for me to live here forever.”
Like any young woman, our daughter wants to “move on with her life” and
live on her own or with her significant other.
It will probably take Sarah a few more years to master enough of the
necessary life skills to live mostly independently. Sadly, she will probably always
need some support and supervision.
As for our son—a 2013 Vassar graduate with a double major in film and
English—Max has just officially moved
out of the family nest this past week.
Although I’m proud to say he recently sold a film script, our son doesn’t
have a full time job yet, nor is he earning a steady income. From my perspective, Max fits into the category of graduates with
happy college memories but no bridge or spring board into the employment
world. Perhaps if he’d majored in
economics, computer science or some other “practical” business-related
field—pre-law, pre-med etc.— instead of pursuing a liberal arts degree, Max’s bank
account would be more robust.
Do I wish he’d picked a different
major? Definitely not. Bursting with talent as a writer, comedian
and film maker, Max MUST chase his dream– even if that means running longer and
harder, and receiving less material
satisfaction than some of his friends.
The world is a sadder, less interesting place without Robin Williams and
Joan Rivers. In order to attempt to fill
their shoes, young people like Max should be encouraged to pursue liberal arts
degrees, the better to learn and practice their crafts. Like salmon swimming upstream, only a few of
these college graduates will go on to make a living as artists. Could Vassar
and other liberal arts colleges do a better job of preparing these “artsy”
students for the real world? Perhaps…but
I believe the most important mission of any college or university is to stretch
each student’s thinking and develop their analytical and communication skills
by providing gifted professors along with diverse curriculum and student
populations. We need to educate moral, creative,
thinking humans, not just worker drones. In all of these areas, I think Vassar
did an excellent job.
Frank Bruni, the New York Times writer who reviewed Aspiring Adults Adrift, believes that
blaming colleges for inadequately preparing graduates to enter the work force
avoids a broader and deeper discussion.
Along with the book’s authors, Bruni acknowledges additional worrisome survey
data from outside the classroom: over 30% of college graduates read on-line or
print newspapers “monthly or never,” and almost 40% discuss public affairs
“monthly or never.” For Bruni, this type
of social and political disconnection is where the true problem lies. He argues that too many college students
stick with the same types of friends and interests they had in high school,
rather than pursuing more diverse relationships and activities that can change
their perspectives. In other words,
these students don’t grow into true adults because they don’t move out of their
comfort zones to engage with others in the world who might offer new or
Bruni blames the students—in addition to
the colleges—for not being sufficiently bold and adventurous in their social
and educational pursuits, I think there
are other issues that hold back our young people. Aside from the anemic economy, (at its worst
when the surveys for Aspiring Adults
Adrift were conducted), there are some obvious, rock bottom truths that are
being conveniently overlooked. Some
students are smarter, more talented AND more ambitious than others, regardless
of their economic circumstances. And no
one can argue that wealthier kids who graduate without student loans have more
money and connections to help them succeed.
In essence, life is unfair. Not just in America, but (most especially)
in the rest of the world. Perhaps, as
Bruni suggests, it is the job of all adults—young and old—to work on leveling
the playing field for the betterment of everyone.
Vassar College—Max’s (and my) alma mater—ranked first as the most economically
diverse among top colleges rated in The
New York Times’ “Measuring Colleges’ Success in Enrolling the Less Affluent”
(9/9/14). About 23% of Vassar’s freshmen
in recent years have received federal Pell grants, indicating that they’re
drawn from the bottom 40% of the income distribution. After accounting for scholarships, the
average annual cost of attending Vassar for lower-income students is about $6,000,
most of which is covered by campus jobs and loans. Vassar’s economic diversity—together with its
race, gender and geographic diversity—enabled Max to meet a wide variety of
people with whom he could exchange different ideas and world views. According
to Frank Bruni, it would almost seem like my son hit the college jackpot—until
you read the research that says individual colleges attended by upper middle
class students have little effect on their eventual earnings. (So far that’s true for Max). However, the good news is that poor students
do derive extra benefits from attending top colleges. More good news is on the horizon. Those colleges toward the bottom of The Times’ list all stated (perhaps out
of shame?) that they were committed to improving economic diversity. (Side note
to The Times: Check back with the
stingy schools in a few years to see if they follow through).
news? In order to offer such generous
financial aid, Vassar has “taken steps to hold down spending on faculty and
staff.” One of my son’s most inspiring
professors was let go. The film department seems to be changing its focus from film
making to film theory, (perhaps in an effort to cut costs?) It remains to be seen whether these financial
moves will be in the best long-term interests of college graduates at Vassar
and other selective schools that opt to spend less on faculty and more on low
more bad news about debating the morally proper mission for colleges. No matter
how economically diverse a college becomes, or how much money it raises to hire
and keep professors who challenge their students, college graduates with
disabilities like my daughter have dim prospects in today’s job market. Any discussion about whether colleges should
do more to prepare neurotypical students for the job market MUST include the
growing numbers of students with learning disabilities. Unless our society
encourages and provides for young adults on the autistic spectrum—now an
inescapable epidemic—my daughter and others like her will be much worse off
than those “aspiring” or “adrift.” We
can’t allow generations of people on the autistic spectrum to be forever
trapped in childhood, dependent on parents and taxpayers. We must find ways to set all our children free.
Labels: autism, college graduates, English, film, financial aid, Joan Rivers, Josipa Roksa, liberal arts, millenials, networking, Pace, Richard Arum, Robin Williams, unemployment, Vassar