First Person: In College, Clashing Expectations and an Educational Paradox

Yahoo News, as part of its “Born Digital” series, asked students and parents to write about how college has changed over a generation. Here’s one perspective.

FIRST PERSON | For better or for worse, college freshman this fall will encounter a vastly different college experience than their parents did. Changes in employer expectations, a rising stigma toward going to college for anything but specialized job training and the uncertain future of the economy all seem to play a key role.

I’m 21. I’m attending UNC Charlotte, where in one year I’ll graduate with a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in journalism and a certificate in entrepreneurship. I’m a first-generation college student. My father works at a company that manufactures heavy-duty trucks, while my mother works as a language interpreter for various hospitals. Both have always encouraged me and my siblings to go to college, believing that they’d be farther along in their careers had they earned a degree.

I work part-time as a library assistant at my university’s library. Throughout the day, I’m constantly engaging other students about their studies and future goals. Small talk often leads to long-winded discussion.

And what I’ve discovered is that there is a stronger disconnect — than in previous generations — between what students pursue academically and what they pursue in a career. College students today seem more likely than their parents to pursue a field of study without a clear understanding of how it will lead to employment.

Any given hour, I check out dozens of books to students from various departments on campus. Most of these books deal with global issues or social studies — for instance: figures from the Holocaust, religious philosophy and the history of racial prejudices.

Very little of this literature deals with the STEM fields of education– science, technology, engineering and mathematics, which are associated with high employment and workforce development.

When I engage other students about their career goals, the key word is always “employment.” When our parents went to college, the reasoning was often two-fold: They wanted to learn a skill that would help them land a well-paying job, but they also wanted to develop their values and expose themselves to new ideas and cultures. But students today seem less inclined to address the latter.

This may be because of a growing stigma of those who pursue education for personal improvement. Many scholars both liberal and conservative have tried to delegitimize various fields of study, especially liberal arts degrees, with data backing up their rhetoric.

Perhaps the most commonly cited set of statistics is from the Georgetown University study, “Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal,” which shows that unemployment rates are generally higher in non-technical majors, such as the arts (11.1 percent), humanities and liberal arts (9.4 percent) and social science (8.9 percent).

One student, whose Africana studies major falls under the non-technical umbrella, frequents the library on a weekly basis for research material. He will graduate in a year with a bachelor’s degree in a department that promises to provide students with “the skills needed for success in a wide range of careers in the 21st century.”

The 24-year-old student is looking for just that — success in the modern workforce. Unfortunately, that’s as specific as his career prospects are; I asked.

Students like him, myself included, are still struggling to make sense of the seemingly paradoxical set of expectations from parents, employers and professors. On one hand, there is an academic obligation to foster one’s own critical thinking skills through a usually less-than-pragmatic curriculum. But like in the case of the Africana studies major, that can sometimes come at the expense of career viability.

Connecting collegiate studies to employment is more crucial and more difficult than ever.

Whether this will have a positive impact on future generations is uncertain. What is certain is that students today are under more pressure than our parents’ generation to earn a well-rounded education and apply that to a very specific field of work.


This article was originally published on Yahoo! News through the Yahoo Contributor Network which was shut down in July 2014. For more content by this author that was originally published on Yahoo! News, click here