To College, Thru College, or Thru Landing A Job After College?

I recently blogged about this question: should we, as a high school, get kids to choose a "default" major before they leave for college? Julie Mikuta, a partner at New Schools Venture Fund, emailed me the following. I share with her permission:

I might go one step further, and get them to:

1. Pretend that they’ve graduated with the major they pick (in your project scenario). Then, have them search for a job, forcing them to use craigslist + whatever resources they have to get a job. (this second part is key… more in a minute)

2. Create a living budget based on the average entry-level salary of someone with their major.

I’ve had too many painful experiences with former students who get thru college, and come out with a sociology or social work degree. Then they hit the job market and:

1. They don’t have the social capital to network to get jobs.

My admittedly over-simplified take is that ed reformers’ support first aimed at “to college”, then “thru college”; I’m convinced the one that’s lurking next is “into a job."

Let's pause for a second. Imagine if our school were held accountable not for test scores, or for college success, but for labor market outcomes. Median salary. At least in Boston, the obvious move would be to try to figure out how to get your alums gov't jobs. Cops and firefighters in particular, who typically earn 6-figure salaries in Boston. Various clerks at City Hall seem to do well, too, and teachers average $85,000.

Obviously this doesn't scale very well across a whole sector. There are a finite number of these jobs. But as an individual school, one could try it.

Julie continues:

I say this based on experience with a handful of students who reach out to get help to find a job. I fire up my network. Sometimes it pans out. Other times it doesn’t, and then it is so painful to see the kid who made it out of the projects, first in college to grad, now collects unemployment and builds up a resume that has gaps all over it – because in these times, if they are entry level in a social work setting, they are at high risk of having their job cut when the budget gets cut.

The middle class kid whose parents have more social capital call their friends. The upper SES-level kids have parents who plant them in a well-paying, or at least consistently paying, first job. A degree in a major with “good career prospects”, to use Jay's words, would give them a better shot at a livable wage.

2. Big irony is that they choose that social-focused degree to give back to their community. Instead, they go back to living off public dollars, in the form of welfare, housing support, etc.

3. If you’re 25 and have had a series of one-year jobs, and you’re hanging out in your old community with folks who didn’t take the jaunt to college—well, you do the math. Not exactly breaking a cycle of poverty, or transforming society by getting these kids in positions of influence so that decisions are made differently because our decision makers would be different.

So, just like I think we would do well with more Latin in schools serving kids who are not getting strong language dev’mt outside of the school, I would advocate for encouraging majors that give our kids a high likelihood of employment in a decently paying job.

I think there is no question that if a kid can pull off a STEM major -- science, technology, engineering, etc -- career prospects are much, much better. One question is better understanding the various non-STEM majors, and the likely payoff.

Julie adds:

(Your post hit a nerve b/c one of my fav students called me a month ago after her car got repossessed, and it was accumulating fees at a rate that’d make it darn near impossible to get back if someone didn’t pay soon. No options in the family or friend network. No car = no transportation to potential jobs (she’s been unemployed for a stint).

So, I paid for the car. Dollars come and go. What’s killing me is seeing someone who is phenomenal slowly get beaten down by seemingly insurmountable obstacles that are the reality for a sociology major whose never made more than $28k. If I had to do it again, she would’ve had a different major. No doubt in my mind that I could’ve influenced her decision.

My brother Steve sent me a link from Wall Street Journal. Which majors pay off? Of course this type of data doesn't separate correlation from causation.