Summary: There is one key factor that goes into selecting a college. Many prospective attendees and their parents completely ignore it.
It happened to me again recently.
A friend and I were chatting over coffee. He has one child in college and another going in a few years. He also knows that I am working through the “kids going to college” phase of life.
My friend asked me how I was counselling my kids on what college to attend. I gave him what I consider to be the most basic, fundamental answer I could. An answer that, in my opinion, cuts to the heart of why anyone should consider going to a specific school. One that EVERY student and EVERY parent should consider before attending a college. One so basic, that I don’t see how anyone could overlook it.
And my friend responded the same way 99.9% of the people do who I share this with:
“Wow, that’s good. I have never considered that.”
Yes, in my experience, most parents (and thus students) don’t consider what I think is the fundamental issue when selecting a college.
Is it any wonder then that we have a host of unemployed graduates (or college attenders who never will graduate) full of debt with little to no long-term job prospects in their chosen field?
Stephen Covey’s best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change made a huge difference in my life. The book came out near the beginning of my career, so I not only read it but also attended a series of seminars on how to apply it to both my work and personal lives. (FYI, these seminars were all the rage for years — my employer held one at their headquarters). This process was a major factor in helping me set and follow goals for all aspects of my life including, of course, my finances.
The second of the seven habits is “Begin with the End in Mind.” It means that before you start developing your plan for work, life, or whatever endeavor you pursue, take some time and imagine what “success” looks like. Then once you know your desired outcome, develop plans/take steps to make it a reality.
Selecting a College with the End in Mind
Let’s take this principle and apply it to picking a college. What is the “end” for a college grad? What does he hope happens once college is over? I’m sure there are numerous answers, but for the majority of people the answer should be something like “get a job.” For most people, college graduation should lead straight to getting a job.
So if “getting a job” is the end of “going to college”, what sorts of issues should a student (and a parent looking to guide him) consider when he’s deciding on going to a college? Let me offer the following partial list for consideration:
- What companies recruit and hire at a given school for the career my student is pursuing?
- What does the college do to help students get jobs in this field at graduation?
- Does the college have a large and active network of supporters and alumni that will help the student get a job in this field?
- What is the employment rate of grads from this college in this field six (or three) months after graduation?
- What are the starting salaries of graduates from this college in this field?
And so on. Basically, you want to know how successful the college is at getting jobs for graduates in a given field and how “good” those jobs are.
Not So Clear
All of this seems kind of obvious to me, but I have had several experiences like this. Many parents and students seem oblivious to the fact that getting a job is the logical outcome of a college education. Most of them simply don’t think about the issue in advance. For example:
- A relative told me her son was headed to college next year. She asked if I had any thoughts on how he should decide where to go. My answer was something like “pick a college that has a good record of getting graduates good jobs in the student’s chosen field.” Her response was, “Wow, that’s a great idea. I never really thought of that.” I had a similar conversation with my wife’s friend.
- An acquaintance from church has a son that’s graduating in my field. The dad asked me what employment advice I had for the son. I asked what companies the college had recruiting in the field and what support the college offers to help grads find jobs.” His response: “I’m not sure, I never thought of those things. I’ll need to look into them.”
- Another friend has a son who graduated from college two years ago. He can’t find a job. When I asked what sort of support the school was giving him, the friend told me the school “isn’t really known for the major my son took.” He also said, “They don’t really place people in that major/field.” Really? Then why did he go there? (FYI, this student was smart enough to get close to a full ride scholarship to any school.)
- A lifeguard at my former pool had been unable to find a job in her chosen field for three years. (So she graduated college and went back to life-guarding right away.) When I asked what resources the college had to help her find a job, her comment was something like “they really don’t help students find jobs.” Hmmmm. So why did she go to this school?
Now I realize that there are many factors that go into picking a college: cost, closeness to home, where a student can get in, “fit”, etc. And I’m not saying those considerations aren’t valid. But I am saying that ability to find a good job in your chosen career should at least be in the conversation if not at the top of the list. And yet it appears that no one is really looking at this issue. They are considering issues like fit much, much more. (For the record, “fit” is way down on my list. There are many colleges that can “fit” a particular individual.)
Others consider cost as the top issue. It’s a major consideration for sure but this can get out of balance as well. I suggest people look at value — considering both costs AND results (job potential). For instance, a college that costs $20,000 total and ends with no job is not as good of a deal IMO as one that costs $30,000 and ends up with a $35,000-a-year job that sets the graduate on the first step to career success.
Colleges are No Better than Parents
When my son was looking at going to college in Oklahoma we toured a local college campus. I asked the tour guide (who was supposed to be very knowledgeable about all things related to the college) what the school’s placement rate was, what sorts of jobs did graduates with my son’s potential degree get, what starting pay, and so forth. He stared blankly at me and said, “Those are good questions. I should know the answer to them but I don’t think the college tracks that.”
What? Wouldn’t that kind of be a big selling point to potential students? It leads me to believe that the college either 1) is too incompetent to track those results (which makes me wonder how else they are incompetent) or 2) knows the answer but since it’s not impressive they don’t share it. Either one is a HUGE red flag. Needless to say, my son did not go there.
On my trip earlier this year to see colleges with my daughter, I asked the same sorts of questions. Two of the colleges had good, well-thought-out answers. One gave me the same sort of “we don’t really track that stuff” answer. Ugh. Needless to say, they were off the list pretty quickly.
I used the above criteria when I selected a college. A short summary:
- I picked my undergraduate school (a small, liberal arts college) based on the fact that it was successful at getting graduates into law school.
- After having an internship with a lawyer and finding out I hated the work, I had to go to plan B. Since my school didn’t do a great (or any, really) job of placing people with business degrees in good jobs, I knew I needed a better alternative.
- I knew what field I wanted to go into, what type of work I wanted in that field, and even what company I wanted to work for. So I went to the best value school that got me an interview with that company. I eventually got hired by them and the rest is history.
Of course that was almost 30 years ago. Time will tell whether or not I can be as successful guiding my kids through their college choices. That said, I’m going to proceed with the plan above and adjust along the way as needed.
photo credit: Norwood School via photopin (license)
This is a good way to select a college but it is based on a big IF.
In fact it is based on the biggest of IF’s
Your child has to know exactly what career they want to choose. At age 18.
Sure, sometimes kids know then, and they go on to be great at that chosen career, but most kids don’t really know, or change their mind soon after enrollment. Smart kids go in with an open mind. That is the point of college.
Even your own example at the end of the post counteracts your basic question. You changed your mind. I changed mine as well.
I think the best way to pick a school is to look at schools that are the most well rounded. The best balance of cost, programs and support. Not a specific program, but a variety of programs. That encourages exploration, which encourages growth. Sometimes that is a small private school, and sometimes that is a large public school.
And that is what will benefit your kid most.
I would say it’s likely that if the college has a good career center that can find you a job for one major, it probably has a good career center that can find you a job in another major.
My main issue is that many (most?) give getting a job ZERO consideration in the process and in my opinion, it needs to be a major part of the decision.
Troy mentioned this excellent point, and you, ESI, addressed it: knowing what ‘the end in mind’ is, when you are at the beginning.
My own experience is pretty traditional. I went to school to play sports. Grow up. Check the ‘4-year-degree’ box. There are just so many worklife/job/careers that existed then, that I had never heard of at all. Many of my contemporaries were on the ‘get a good-paying job’ track, and produced a surplus of lawyers. (ESI, this will give you a bit of schadenfreude…they are all miserable!:-)) A number of medical professionals, academics, etc.
And jobs are not the only thing people pursue at school I will say one thing that never occurred to me then, and only after several decades out. Many people met their (sometimes first) spouse in college. They took a job in order to support a life together. Roughly half of them wound up ambivalent about both job and spouse. So much changes between 22 and 30; I would have made a big mistake if I took the path of least resistance and married my college g/f. Maybe this point is worth making to a young person in college.
Here’s a question for you, Troy, and anyone else that comes along this comment:
How did you get your first job out of college?
Should be an interesting conversation…
BTW, thanks for the lawyer insight. 🙂
‘First job out of college’, good question! My jobs have never been great paying, or prestigious and sexy. Just a lot of grinding, problem-solving, customer/client service.
Thinking about your question has given me a new appreciation for the answer: personal contacts. I’ve applied for hundreds of jobs over the decades, blind, on the internet, etc. But the jobs I have obtained came through a person I knew telling me about the opening, referring me, sometimes seeking me out. Though the jobs weren’t high-profile, I was grateful to get them and those personal contacts put their reputation on the line for me. I’m very grateful to them, and today I will make a point to tell them so. Thanks for asking this question, you were right and it is (hopefully) the start of an interesting conversation!
Unemployment was 10.8% when I graduated, and it took me and most of my contemporaries quite a while to get traction. And a lot hid out in grad/law/medical school, waiting for ‘the economy to get better’ just like today.
I think my mom tried to do this with me but I was not prepared to intelligently answer that question at 18. Looking back on it, I remember being advised to “find my passion” but I don’t remember any specific guidance on how to do that such as volunteering or practical internships before entering college to get an idea of what I might be interested in. Maybe it came up but I didn’t take it to heart or perhaps my parents could have gone about it differently to effectively deliver the message based on my personality.
Like JayCeezy, I was also an athlete so that consumed a lot of my time high school and later on in college and perhaps left me with less time and energy to focus on the future and what was coming next. Thinking about it now, I also feel like high schools were so focused on college admissions that they weren’t any help either. I think I was able to take like one or two electives my senior year for a quarter or two which I don’t think is enough to get any sort of real exposure. I think hands on experiences would’ve been the way to go.
I ended up choosing my school based on “fit” and not some of the other metrics that you list out as being more important. I also choose to enroll in the business school because that seemed like a flexible approach and a good way to ensure a job that paid well after school. What I didn’t really consider was that I was enrolling in the business school in a public university in the northeast that is surrounded by some of the best private and Ivy league colleges in the country. I graduated with a dual degree in finance and management in 2009 and was woefully unemployed for about 18 months. I will say this taught me a lot and is directly responsible for probably all of the success that I’ve had since becoming gainfully employed.
ESI to your question regarding our first job, mine was secured by using a family friend working at a fin tech company as a reference to help get my foot in the door for an interview. The recent graduate program had around 20 employees when I joined and there was only one other public school kid. About one third to half were Ivy league and the rest were NE private school grads. No way was I getting considered without an in at the company.
After college (Undergrad and MBA) I went self employed and started a business in partnership with someone I did my internship for that was related to my major (Finance). That business flourished, and helped create another related but separate business.
After 20 years I still own and run both business, and they have been very successful.
I have never worked for anyone outside of high school and college part time jobs.
My parents both owned their own business (completely unrelated to my industry) all through my childhood so I am sure that played a part. I knew I wanted my own, just wasn’t sure what it would be.
It certainly creates a different money mindset
I am curious. Since you didn’t use your degree to open corporate doors how important do you feel your undergrad and MBA degrees were in helping you to succeed as a self employed business owner (other than the internship getting you a business partner)?
If it was instrumental it would be great to hear some examples of where and how the degree advanced your business success.
I have a technical degree. I have never had any business classes but business comes very naturally for me and I have succeeded quite well without it. However I know that doesn’t mean that is generally applicable. To be honest I am asking because as I look at my kids future I am trying to determine how to best give them advice towards some of these choices. Obviously a degree can open doors but the interesting thing to know is how valuable the skills are themselves in improving performance and outcomes if applied to ones own business.
I really like the whole idea of after you get out of college what job do you want to get so you can use your degree? Degrees I understand that there is a good chance of a job out there where you can be employed is engineering (like chemical, electrical, mechanical, industrial, materials science) A nurse, teacher, Physical therapist, welder, electrician, computer science, well you get the point. But the degrees that I don’t understand how someone will make a living at is a degree in anthropology, communications, Russian history ( and I will not about all the weird ones out there)and all those others ones that make me question, what sort of job will they find with that degree? A friend of ours son has a 4 year degree in anthropology and I was wondering what is he going to do with that degree? He is in America Corps for the past two years to help pay off two years worth of student loans but I am not sure what he will do after that. I have come to believe that just because you love to do something may not necessarily land you a paying job. I find both students and parents are naïve on marketable jobs for that degree and going into debt for a degree without a marketable job is just asking for trouble. Just because you are smart does not mean you know how to make wise choices.
I am very fortunate that my sons are both going to be engineers as there are jobs in engineering and both will be marketable. Something I understand.
Jack Catchem says
If someone is looking at most “tip of the spear” government jobs (Cop, Special Agent, Military Officer, etc…) all that matters is the document and the grade. My UCLA history degree with Middle East specialization is almost worthless in the private sector.
It’s been invaluable in the public sector. (Reading, Writing, and Analysis, what’s not to love?)
But I agree with you for most people such degrees are pointless outside of teaching & government.
Thank you for given me an example of someone applying there “what doe one do with this degree”. This is the first time someone has given me a concrete application of a degree that I believe would be hard to find a job outside of teaching.
Jack Catchem says
I swear this is an epidemic. Having gone through the system more recently, I can assert students are raised and sold on the concept that education is required for education’s sake. The next step of entering the job market isn’t even a blip on the mental radar.
I recently wrote a post of my own focusing on when/if cops should get master’s degrees. Between the GI Bill and my department, I was PAID to get a master’s from one of the top schools in my field. Additionally I get an education bonus for having it. Of course I got it.
Unfortunately many other cops feel it’s a secret step to promotion when that may not be true. Also, the money bonus may not exist or may not be as useful as if they didn’t go into debt and instead banked their overtime.
Thanks for this article, ESI. It’s a topic I’m actually quite passionate about and love supporting those saying, “Wait, what’s the point of all this?” It’s a key reason why when I was accepted into Pepperdine Law and Big City Police Department on the same month, I ended up becomeign a cop. I’m not in debt and love (most) work days!
Are you aware of any good independent measures of job placement for colleges?
If you’re researching this it would be good to have some reliable statistics rather than hit or miss self reported numbers from the schools.
My first step in weeding out the wannabes is do they have a career center.
Next, I want to see a list of what companies came on campus last year to recruit.
Then I look at stats based on jobs obtained, % placed, etc.
In addition, I ask about internship programs as those are great training opportunities and can often lead to jobs.
I feel that this sort of data has got to be very difficult – if not impossible – for a school to reliably acquire. First of all, if you’re talking about boiling down the results for individual majors, then it’s a very small pool of graduates each year that the data will be picked from. Second, this is self-reported data. I am a huge fan of my school, but even I don’t respond to those surveys they send out about this sort of thing. If they only get a 25% response rate, now you’re talking about knowing the results for 25% of a small pool of applicants. Third, it assumes that people choose to get employment in the field they majored in. I have an electrical engineering degree, but my work is in an entirely different field of engineering and I never even looked for an EE job because I had lost interest in that field by the time I graduated.
And of course as others pointed out – how many 18-year-olds really have a good idea of what they want to do for a career (or even SHOULD have a good idea of it?).
So, in a perfectly rational world, this sound, rational advice would be very beneficial. But in practice, I wouldn’t place this factor at the top of my child’s college search. For the record, I got my first job after sending a resume via email based on a Monster.com job posting (is Monster.com still around?). I did not use any services provided by my school, though as a large private school they had a fairly robust career services program.
I agree with your quote of Steven Covey “begin with the end in mind”. The first thing I would like to submit to you is that going to college is not a vocational program. That is why many college graduates can not find a job. I think if you want to be guaranteed a job learn a skill. The purpose of college is to learn problem solving skills and analytic skills particularly studying liberal arts. Courses in the sciences or engineering could be the exception providing concrete job training. An example of a field of study and skill which requires college training is a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
In terms of choosing a college, I think if you attend an Ivy League college in all probability it will increase your employment options. Famous college drop outs such Bill Gates, Steves Jobs, Mark Zuckerburg, Oprah Winfred and Russell Simmons where successful because they already had problem solving skills, vision and motivation. They did not need to attend college to get a job or financial success.
I attended college and possess an advance degree. I paid for my three children to attend college. I told them to select a field of study carefully. I did not expect the university to help find them a job.
The harsh reality of the US economy is the average income for a new college graduate is $50,556 according to National Association of Colleges and Employers. The top 5% of workers in the US makes $188,001. It is difficult to become a multimillionaire if you are make an average salary.
As for thinking about what you might want to do in life, I agree it’s hard to know at 18, I know I didn’t know. I would add a piece of career advice that I have received and that I now use when talking to others: Imagine a Venn diagram, now draw three circles, with the labels “What I like to do”, “What I’m good at”, and “What is valued (i.e. what will people pay me to do).” Now try to find work that is in the intersection of those three circles. In my own experience that’s easier said than done, but I do think it’s a good exercise. I could expand on this but I’m sure you all get the point.
As for college, I was shooting for a “name” school and that has probably done me a lot of favors in the long run. I did that b/c it seemed to me as a teenager that the most successful parents of my friends all had one of at least two things true: The were running a family business they took over or they had attended a “name” school. In my experience those types of schools have active alumni bases (some more than others and it’s really worth researching) and will attract many top companies for recruiting. Two things ESI points out as valuable resources and at least in my personal experience this has shown this to be true. Of course, those are only useful resources if you actually take advantage of them…
That all being said, I’ve met many people in my career who are smarter than I am who attended little schools most people may not have heard of. If you’re smart and willing to work hard, things are probably going to work out for you. But I would opine that going to a top 25, maybe even top 50, school might be worth the extra cost b/c of the doors it will open for you. Even if someone didn’t go to the same school, there is a very real “club” where the network is pretty valuable.
Great stuff! Appreciate your sharing your thoughts and experience, now my son is a HS junior.
One thing to piggyback is to make a full use of co-op/internship program.
When I graduated with an Electrical Engineering degree, I did not have any idea what the role differences are between a Quality Engineer, Test Engineer, Process Engineer, Manufacturing Engineer, etc. What I had in mind was a Design Engineer role, which probably what most engineering students at that time had in mind. I got my first job because I applied to a “big name” company, which I figured there were many opportunities to go to within the company if I did not like the role.
Fast forward 30 years, now I am in marketing of technical, industrial products, the progression of my career was through jobs of a test engineer, a quality engineer with process responsibility, learned along the way I enjoyed more the commercial areas and winning the deals, got an MBA, and moved to technical sales and marketing.
My daughter, who recently graduated with double majors from a state university, found out she did not enjoy manufacturing work from her co-op experience. I think she will gravitate towards political/campaign area, something that she discovered during her college days. I encouraged her not to change major because I believe most college degrees are to demonstrate that the person can accomplish something and can learn new things.
I think “begin with the end in mind” is a chunking process. One may not know a personal finance blogger role existed 😉 so it is hard to begin with that in mind, but it is a progression of chunking the goals.
It is easier for the parents to see the paths if they have been there. Children should take advantage of that, but many times there are new paths to go to.
I read this article with great interest as I will have children in high school in a few short years. I agree with a prior comment that I see high schools do much instruction around how to get into a great college but little on how to align your interests and capabilities with potential fields of work.
ESI, would you have any suggestions as to what your son found helpful as you helped guide him through the process of figuring out what field he would work in? Any insight would be very helpful. Perhaps a blog post? 🙂
This is a question I get quite often, believe it or not.
And while it’s been some time since I posted this, we really aren’t any closer to him finding his ultimate career (though I did help him get a full-time job, so there’s some progress.)
All this to say that I don’t really have anything to share that I think is successful at this point…