Colleges Should Be Building Bridges to Careers, Not Stranded Piers

Sep 20, 2019

In perhaps the greatest book in the English language, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” following the famous rowdy opening where stately, plump Buck Mulligan taunts and tests the moody brooding Stephen Dedalus, Joyce cuts to a quieter moment in a classroom. Here, teacher Stephen Dedalus is asking his young students about the Greek general Pyrrhus. One student isn’t paying attention and, when summoned by his teacher, thinks he’s being asked not about Pyrrhus, but about a pier. Dedalus pokes the boy’s shoulders with the book.

Dedalus: “Tell me now, what is a pier?”

Student: “A pier, sir… A thing out in the waves. A kind of a bridge. Kingstown pier, sir.”

Dedalus thinks for a moment and responds: “Kingstown pier… Yes, a disappointed bridge.”

Joyce chronicles the students’ reaction: “The words troubled their gaze.”

These days, more and more young students and professionals are troubled as a result of mistaking a pier for a bridge. The bridge they’re seeking is a bridge to a good first job—hopefully, in a sector they’re passionate about. If they don’t get a good first job, they’re much less likely to get a good second, third, fourth, and fifth job. And with rising tuition and student loan debt, college doesn’t make sense for most students unless college completes this bridge.

There are several reasons why the bridge might be a pier. First and foremost, students may not complete their studies. Only about half of all students who enroll in four-year colleges in the United States complete a degree within six years. While some do take longer, the overall completion rate isn’t higher than 55 percent, meaning 45 percent of students still hit the water. Many colleges and nonprofit organizations are rightly focused on providing the requisite additional support and services to meaningfully increase completion.

For students who do finish with a degree, many programs are still effectively piers because they fail to lead to an intended or desirable destination. The most popular major in the U.S. is now business. The logic seems straightforward enough: the vast majority of good jobs are at businesses and, if nothing else, business majors must be qualified for jobs in businesses, right?

Unfortunately, many business majors consist of coursework that better reflect the faculty view of what businesses need, rather than what specific businesses actually need for entry-level jobs. Instead of training students on Salesforce, one of the most commonly used tools in American businesses today, most programs tend to focus on academic theories of consumer behavior and pricing strategies.

Business schools may be the most overlooked disappointed bridge. Each year, tens of thousands of students graduate each year with business degrees unprepared for any specific entry-level job in any specific business function. And following findings that business majors may not be as rigorous as arts and sciences programs (“the business major is for students who want a college degree without a college education”), critics are piling on, urging institutions to abolish the business major.

But business majors are the tip of the iceberg. In early August, EMSI, a provider of labor market analytics that is part of the Strada Education Network, released a study showing that colleges are not providing linear paths to good first jobs, but rather a “crazy flow” or “swirl.” Analyzing millions of graduates from six different majors, the report found that all the students were effectively going after the same jobs in sales, marketing, management, and financial analysis. If college majors are meant to be highways over bridges, they appear to be converging and causing an academic traffic jam.

A final barrier to completing the bridge is found at high schools—or rather, not found there. American high schools overburden guidance counselors with an average caseload of 482 students for every one counselor. This means few students are getting meaningful help in thinking about future careers, and that fewer students are selecting colleges and programs with a clear vision.

Career services are often divorced from academic programs and curriculum. But a new model is emerging, one that bridges youth and young professionals to careers while clearly demonstrating the relevance of specific coursework. New York University recently launched three such mini-bridges—in music, sports management, and hospitality—through self-paced online programs that introduce students to the industry, necessary skills, and topics of study in order to better understand the shape and direction of the bridge and destination towards a viable career.

For example, “Music Industry Essentials,” a program from NYU and Billboard done in conjunction with Yellowbrick (disclosure: a University Ventures portfolio company), exposes students to the music industry through leaders from major music labels. Seeing them put their skills in practice, at brands they can relate to, can help students get a better sense of direction and be more likely to select and complete their program of study with passion and purpose.

There’s no reason every college and university shouldn’t be reaching out to students with mini-bridges that highlight their distinctive programs of study. They must show students that their passions connect directly to coursework and then to good first jobs. Mini-bridges have the potential to be powerful marketing and enrollment engines. And if the connections are unclear, take advantage of the mini-bridge building exercise to better align top programs with the interests of students and employers.

Once students are better informed and on a path that they know is a bridge and not a pier, they’ll be more likely to enjoy reading “Ulysses” without worrying about their first job.


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