Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Time to Change the College Paradigm

Study Abroad Ambassador: Will in Finland
Study Abroad Ambassador: Will in Finland (Photo credit: Thompson Rivers)
by AnnMarie McIlwain

We send our children to college to gain knowledge and to build the foundation for a self-sufficient life.

Along the way, we hope that they develop a passion for something that will make their professional lives productive and satisfying.

Despite the best of intentions and a lot of spending by parents, schools and the government, half of our nation's recent graduates face unemployment, according to an analysis of government data for The Associated Press.

Those that do get jobs are often disappointments for their employers. "Follow your passion" is a throwaway to college grads hanging out at home and their parents who are feeding and housing them.

To address the mismatch between higher education and real-world employment, we need to change how we raise our children and what it takes to get into college.

Many parents my age joke that if they were to apply to their alma mater today they would never get in due to the requirements of today's top colleges. While my generation may lack the athletic, linguistic, musical and academic pedigree of younger generations, we had something perhaps more valuable: job experience.

Like many of my peers, I started with a paper route. As I got older, I tutored younger children, worked in the President's office where I attended college, was a security guard for the local department of public works, and spent years as a salesclerk at a card and gift shop.

These experiences instilled in me a strong work ethic and an understanding that I would and could support myself.

By contrast, today's kids emerge from high school and college with little to no real work experience and are, not surprisingly, ill prepared for the work environment. Four out of ten employers report that recent college grads are not prepared to successfully participate in the business world, according to a recent study by the Global Strategy Group.

Common employer complaints include unpreparedness for interviews and bad attitudes. Such employer dissatisfaction may be contributing to recent graduates' high level of unemployment.

Adding to this, parents often expect too little of their children when it comes to basic household chores and work. We allow the homework, practices, club meetings, etc. to set the tone of the household and leave nudging our children to help around the house or get a job for a later time.

I am just as guilty as any other parent - tired from the demands of working and managing my children's marathon lives to enforce the behavior.

To begin solving this problem, we need to reassess the college experience. One or more of the top ranked colleges needs to publicly announce a change in the admissions qualifications by giving equal or greater value for work experience, rather than the extracurricular requirements of today.

A bridge year between high school and college where kids work waiting tables, shoveling snow, teaching English in Costa Rica, or pumping gas would arguably be more valuable than repeating high school algebra and biology as a college freshman, particularly since that is not the skill set most employees seek.

College curricula should be revised to focus more on critical thinking and communication skills, as these are the skills most valued by employers and frequently found to be lacking. Majors should be primarily focused on subject areas that can be validated as market worthy (i.e., are projected to be in sufficient demand).

The government should rethink giving loans to students pursuing fields that are not projected to be growing in the future and offer employment. Lastly, full credits should be given for real, full time, full semester work by the majority of schools, not just the co-op schools.

Changing the paradigm for entrance to college by validating work experience puts parents in a position to execute changes at home. Some of the time spent on extracurricular activities could be devoted to assuming responsibilities at home and working in part-time jobs.

This benefits everyone as the children learn how to serve the needs of others and parents get an extra set of hands. Self reliance and pride should grow.

By re-engineering what it takes to get into college and embracing this change in our homes, we can partner towards building a better-qualified young adult workforce. America cannot afford to keep graduating millions of students every year who are fundamentally unprepared to work. It is not economically or socially sustainable.

AnnMarie McIlwain is the Founder and CEO of

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