A college education historically has been the route to a better-paying job and a satisfying career. But currently, more than half of college graduates are “underemployed” in jobs that don’t require a college degree.
Why the growing disconnect? Certainly, the main reason is our economy’s slow recovery. But I believe another reason is the lack of substantive learning in many students’ college studies. And while not unique in this regard, the failure to prepare students to adequately perform in degree-required jobs is evident in the undergraduate curriculum at the University of Minnesota.
Every year Vascular Solutions hires recent college graduates for our MedDevice Associate program, which is modeled as a working apprenticeship for medical device marketing managers and salespeople. Specific coursework related to medical devices isn’t a prerequisite for our program, but a candidate must demonstrate proficiency in learning and communicating complicated subjects — a skill we expect to be developed by a college education.
We just finished interviewing for the 2014 class, and it was clear from most students’ transcripts that their college curriculum did not serve them well in developing these essential skills. One University of Minnesota graduate with a degree in scientific and technical communication took college classes in karate, guitar, Latin dance, handball, saber fencing, golf and master gardening. Then, for some of his core curriculum, he took courses in team leadership, Internet tools, visual rhetoric, intimate relationships, proposals and grants, exploring the universe, and technology and self.
So for a degree in scientific and technical communication, this student had no hard science, very little technical learning and only a “visual” communications course on his transcript. Even though we would like to hire an additional apprentice for our medical communications department, we didn’t hire this graduate because, despite the title of his degree, his curriculum failed to develop the ability to learn and communicate any subject even remotely as scientific or technical as a medical device.
And by no means was this student the exception. Other U graduates we interviewed had loaded their schedules with courses in honeybee management, personal leadership in the universe and my personal favorite, “cash or credit,” with the stated goal “to help students decide whether or not they want to apply for a credit card.” One credit awarded.
In reality, the only jobs these college graduates are qualified to perform are the same jobs they could have performed without a college education — and so that is where they end up working. And because Vascular Solutions can’t find enough college graduates with a sufficient chance of success to justify our investment, we leave one slot in our apprentice program unfilled.
The blame for this curriculum does not lie with the students; I still remember being a young University of Minnesota student motivated to get a high GPA by taking easy classes. But the U has the power and responsibility to ensure that all of its graduates have taken sufficient substantive courses to foster the student’s analytical and communication skills.
But instead of recognizing this issue, the U sets lofty goals for its curriculum that ignore it. In his recent State of the University speech, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler said: “At its core, the institution seeks to educate, cultivate and empower leaders to create institutional and societal change. In order to do that, our curriculum must change. I believe we should lead in developing courses and degree programs that equip our students to tackle the grand challenges.”
Leaving aside the question of what institutional and societal change the university fosters, the grand challenge in its undergraduate curriculum should be to teach students to learn and communicate advanced subjects.
Make no mistake: The solution to this underemployment problem is not to make the U into a trade school or to add industry-specific graduate programs such as the university’s new master’s degree in medical device innovation. Our apprenticeship program can provide industry-specific education far better than can the university.
The solution is for the university to return to the traditions of a liberal arts education with a required undergraduate curriculum of substantive courses in science, math, literature, composition and speech that requires a student to learn how to learn. That curriculum would prepare its graduates with the skills necessary to qualify for college-degree-required jobs like Vascular Solutions’ and begin to earn a financial return on their expensive college education.