A couple of weeks ago, I came across a fact in a U.S. News and World Report article that stated, “73% of college graduates hold a position unrelated to their major.” This interested me because I am one of the 73%. My pathway through higher education was non-traditional to say the least. While I understood that going to college was important, I lacked the resources and knowledge to navigate the system. I’m not unique in this way. There are some people who just know what they want to study, they have a great support system, and secure access to necessary funding. Then there are those individuals who are more like drifters or explorers. We sample a little bit of everything hoping in the end that it all works out. My background drifted from a general studies associate’s degree, to an undergraduate and graduate education in humanities, before entering law school. Looking back, I am not sure I would have changed anything, but taking this meandering route through higher education provided me a different perspective on determining its value.
With an increasing focus on student outcomes, is higher education missing the bigger picture in defining graduates’ success? Based on the statistic above and how institutions are required to report outcomes, I am a failure. I took much longer to complete my degrees than I probably should have, I did not enter the humanities field, and I am not a practicing lawyer. In an effort to demonstrate immediate value, the true benefits of higher education are being overshadowed or more importantly replaced with a skills-based emphasis. The way success is defined is too narrow.
Too often, students follow a similar approach to education. It is a pathway filled with twists and turns making accommodations for the curve balls that life throws their way. I was lucky. The degrees I earned provided me with skills that were applicable across various disciplines. While I read works by famous philosophers and landmark legal cases, it was the critical thinking and analysis, the reading and writing, the research and self-reliance skills that helped me navigate my chosen career. My ultimate outcome is not something that the higher education institutions I attended could have anticipated, but it does not make the degrees I earned any less valuable. As institutions prepare to meet the increasing accountability demands, I hope we do not sell our graduates short. Part of higher education’s purpose is to develop skills that promote the success of every individual regardless of what they ultimately become when they grow up.
If you’re a part of the 73%, how do you define your success?