“…If you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.” – President Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union Address

“Millions of young Americans have graduated from college during the Obama presidency, ready to use their gifts and get moving in life. Half of them can’t find the work they studied for, or any work at all.” – Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin

Bok

“If you think education is expensive; try the cost of ignorance.” – Former Harvard President Derek Bok

It all seemed so easy.

Go to college. Get your degree. Land that first job. Build a career. Retire happy.

Or at least that was the plan.

It used to be that a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree from a reputable university or college was the ticket to at least a middle-class lifestyle. A graduate degree did not lead to an “overqualified” descriptor, but even better employment prospects.

Guess we have to say that the best laid plans of mice and college grads often go astray.

It’s not that Derek Bok is wrong. There is a wide gulf between those with college degrees and those who only graduated from high school, or worse, dropped out of high school.  That divide still exists, but only if you can find a job.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported for first time that there are more unemployed Americans who attended at least one year of college (4.7 million) than unemployed Americans who graduated or dropped out of high school (4.3 million). And these figures do not include the 14 million Americans who are underemployed or simply gave up the hunt for a job. Are there more underemployed college attendees than those who graduated or dropped out of high school? I wouldn’t bet against it.

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As a university instructor in public relations, I am deeply troubled that one-half of college graduates are not finding a job, any job. Mom and dad are shelling out tens of thousands of dollars and/or students are going deeply into debt only to face what could be a grim future, saddled with a ton of red ink.

The cumulative numbers are unprecedented and staggering: $16 trillion in national debt; 23 million unemployed or underemployed; a record 46.7 million on food stamps; 14 million underwater on mortgages; 13 million vacant properties; 50 percent of new college graduates can’t find a job.

Does this mean as one of my USC fraternity brothers wrote this morning that a college degree has become the equivalent of a high-school diploma?

Personally, I am optimistic but also realistic. Nearly two-thirds of students are heading off to the promise of post-secondary school. At the same time, the economic funk that has besieged the nation and most of the developed world will not end anytime soon. What should we as educators do to help prepare our students to effectively compete in order to be among the 50 percent that are finding jobs as opposed to the other half that are despondent and frustrated?

● Students will be hired that successfully address the Return on Investment (ROI) question. What’s in it for an employer to hire Student A over Student B? What differentiates Student A from Student B? In a 50 percent world (at least for the time being) the answer does not lie with, “I really work well with people.” Sorry that is a distinction without any difference. The real difference lies not with the degree, but a degree with meaningful experience (e.g., internship).

● We need to think of colleges and universities as professional schools. We should be preparing next generation professionals, not future conservative or liberal activists. Professionals will be hired. Activists will be in the streets, in tents or back at home.

● We need to equip students with the skills of a digital world: computation, science, verbal and written expression in the languages of the 21st Century and the ability to tell the story, and tell it well. Effective persuasion in the Lingua Franca cannot be effectively outsourced. The SEC will not look kindly upon quarterly earnings reports and CEO letters written in the third world.

● We must teach students that competition is permanent. We should also help them to understand that digital is eternal. That embarrassing under-the-influence photo, unrestrained offensive rant or display of inked and/or pierced private body parts via social media may be all the difference between Student A being hired or not being hired. Student B will not shed a tear for the what-were-you-thinking competition.

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● American Students also need to understand that a degree from a U.S. university or college is not a panacea. Students from all over the globe are rightfully yearning for their piece of the pie. They are competing, sometimes fiercely, and why shouldn’t they?

If a student chooses to pursue a college degree and move on beyond a high school diploma, it should mean something special. This may be controversial, but personally I do not see a college education as a preordained civil right or an entitlement. It must be earned. The same is true for beating the competition, engaging in lifelong learning and ultimately winning in the digital workplace of today and tomorrow.

http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/most-unemployed-americans-attended-least-college-first-time-152523538.html

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/01/24/remarks-president-state-union-address

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0812/80423.html

http://chronicle.com/blogs/innovations/college-for-all-obamas-higher-education-agenda-part-3-of-8/31832

http://thinkexist.com/quotation/if_you_think_education_is_expensive-try/188916.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Bok

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