Ask any potential student or their parents about their top concerns when choosing a college, and “employability” will likely be on the list. A host of societal factors have combined to make this true: First, the Great Recession of 2008 made families much more concerned about the cost/benefit rationale for higher education, with the hope that the increasingly expensive investment will pay off in greater lifetime earnings. Second, businesses increasingly work with colleges and universities to provide much-needed input on the real-world skills graduates need to demonstrate, while also providing subtle (or not-so-subtle) pressure on institutions to train graduates to be ready to work from day one. Finally, governmental oversight and regulations such as the “gainful employment” rules have turned the spotlight on how effectively institutions are preparing their graduates to find jobs.
No question, employability is important. But perhaps more important is using the two, four, or more years in higher education as a time to find one’s vocation. Hope College in Holland, Michigan, understands this. Its Crossroads Project, funded by the Lilly Endowment, helps students find their vocation and prepare themselves for their entire lives, not just for the selection of a career. David Cunningham, director of the program and professor of religion, notes that a broader focus on vocation helps students better prepare for many of the challenges they will face.
“A lot of people shoehorn themselves into majors they don’t really fit because that’s what they’re told to do,” Cunningham says. The increasing pressure on students to hit the campus prepared with a choice of major and an anticipated job goal means that many students are making lifelong decisions based on incomplete criteria. “There’s a lot of talk about first-year salary,” says Cunningham. “That’s a dumb way to think about an education; if that’s what you want, go to trade school and be a plumber,” he says. Indeed, many trades do boast higher first-year salaries than college graduates will earn, with the expectation that the college graduates will eventually make up the gap.
But comparing the two types of paths is not a valid analysis, and it is not helped by the current political climate, which appears to distill educational success down into raw earning power. “The political conversation makes it sound like college is a very expensive trade school that takes a long time,” Cunningham says.
Not only does the current national conversation potentially limit the discussion about the purpose of a college education but it also directs students into paths that may not adequately prepare them for the very jobs they plan to hold. “We’re hearing more of a worry that students are being educated too narrowly,” Cunningham says, noting that students need to develop a certain amount of intellectual “agility” to succeed in their careers.
First, some programs and institutions focus exclusively or nearly so on preparation for existing jobs, to the exclusion of some basic skills that employers find necessary. “Employers really want reading, writing, and speaking [ability],” says Cunningham, emphasizing the need for these so-called soft skills alongside the more technical career preparation. “The majority of the job market doesn’t have that narrowly defined focus” to require a laser-like focus on immediate career prep to the exclusion of more liberal arts-based skills.
Additionally, not every graduate will land the exact job that he or she expected. “You may not walk into the ideal job when you graduate,” says Cunningham. Preparing exclusively for a certain job may foreclose other options before the student even graduates.
Cunningham speaks of “college as a time and a space” for reflection about students’ purpose in life—their vocation. In a press release about the Crossroads Project, the medical field is given as an example: “Students may know that they want to work in medicine, but without time for exploration and self-reflection, they may simply assume that they should become doctors, without considering exactly what career path within the larger field is right for them.”
The Crossroads Project helps students consider these questions through “reflective questions integrated into already required courses, field trips that allow students to dig deeper into a chosen career, and faculty members willing and able to provide guidance and support.”
Cunningham quotes writer and theologian Frederick Buechner about vocation: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Perhaps we owe it to our students to help them find this place.
Cunningham, David S. At This Time and in This Place: Vocation and Higher Education. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti, MS, is managing editor of Academic Leader, chair of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference, and owner of Hilltop Communications.