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Broken Promises, Broken Dreams


I have a younger man in my life. He’s 21—handsome, funny, sunny and bright. But last week, as we chatted, he was worried and trying hard to hang onto his positive outlook on life. Bryan just graduated from college with a degree in business, and he can’t find a job. Another young friend is 26. She completed her masters in public administration. She did internships and volunteer work and community organizing and more, but she may be moving home to job hunt.

They are not alone. Yesterday I read about Michael Volpe.

After relentlessly pounding the industrial carpet at scores of job fairs, firing off hundreds of cover letters and knocking on dozens of doors since November, Michael Volpe was desperate. The 25-year-old college graduate with a degree in physics and a couple of years with the Peace Corps is learning that the nation's capital is also the networking capital. And if you don't know the right people, landing a job can be daunting. This week, he took his job search in a new direction, standing outside downtown D.C. Metro stops during morning rush hour with a sign around his neck reading, "ENTRY LEVEL JOB SEEKER."

We tell them from the time they are in kindergarten that a good education with a university degree is the key to a good job and a fulfilled life. This Volpe kid worked hard. He played by the rules. He went the extra mile. He signed the student loan papers. He did everything he was supposed to do. So did my two young friends. And now, after years of hard work, they proudly step forward to claim their prize---financial security and meaningful work. But they find themselves standing at the edge of a personal abyss instead.

My local newspaper reported that here, at University of Mary Washington,

Gary Johnson said the job market for newly minted college grads is leaner than he's ever seen it in his 20 years as a career counselor.

But in the same article,
Marie Hawley, career counselor at Germanna Community College's Fredericksburg campus, said that the college's nursing students have "excellent prospects right now." She also said a number of older students who have lost their jobs or want to hang onto them are taking courses at Germanna to enhance their skills--and resumes--in such things as computerized accounting. "These are people who have four-year university degrees who are saying, 'I need something new and fresh to make myself attractive in the job market right now,'" Hawley said.

I’m a family and consumer economist—a specialist in nano-economics, if you will. Unlike the macro or micro enconomists, I see economics not in theory, but in the everyday lives of individuals. And at the personal economic level, supply and demand are everything. So I keep wondering: Who promoted the false assumption that the demand for college educated job seekers would continually expand to meet the supply of college graduates?

It flies in the face of reality and experience. We’ve been hearing about boomerang kids who return with degrees to live in the basement and wait tables for years now. As parents, educators, and policymakers, how did we deceive ourselves into believing that if we tell kids to go to college, prosperity and happiness would be their guaranteed outcomes?

While the job market for recent college graduates may be weak, the unemployment rate for those who lack a high school diploma is abysmal. Even for the high school graduate, employment options are limited. Job growth and job opportunities are best in skilled and technical jobs that do require post secondary training, but do not require a four year degree.

"I naively thought I'd have my choice of jobs..."

I wish you luck, Mike Volpe. With a degree in physics and minor in math, plus your experience, your work ethic, and your determination, you're bound to find a job and I’m sure you’ll be successful. But I wonder how many of those young hopefuls with degrees in business may have to settle for retail rather than corporate level? What about those newly minted art historians, sociologists, literary analysts and psychologists who may be waiting tables in order to pay off student loans? When we told them to go to college, did we remember to tell them that it might be easier to earn a degree in communication and public relations or international affairs than to land a job in those fields?

We told them to follow their dreams, but did we mention that all dreams don’t come true and that they should be prepared to deal with that reality? Did we think to tell them to look at job prospects before committing $100,000 and four years to job preparation? Did we mislead them? Should we have told them that there are Other Ways to Win?


I think you raise an important cautionary note. In California, some advocacy groups are pushing K-12 school districts to make high school graduation contingent on students' fulfilling the University of California's A to G entrance requirements. That, in turn, leads to mandatory Algebra for all 8th graders, and other mandates as well.

The whole thing is predicated on the idea that the only worthwhile outcome for a student is graduation from a four-year university. As you have pointed out, this prospect is not materializing for many, and the single-minded obsession with that one outcome is a denial of the many other pathways students may choose to success. I wrote about this situation a few months back in my blog: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2008/12/reform_collides_with_reality_c_1.html

Thanks so much for this thoughtful post. I'd like to add that one of the problems with our approach to preparing students for work in the 21st-century global economy is that we fail to offer reasonable and rapid alternatives to the four-year college path.

I think you'd get a kick out of my book, The New Global Student: Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly International Education, which was published by Random House this month. I describe what I call the "bold school" approach which is an advantageous and affordable alternative to the four-by-four model (four years of high school, four years of college). Bold schoolers are getting a personalized and exhilarating education by blending the options available and focusing on what lights them up. And because they develop clarity about their interests and talents early, they build excitement and momentum in what they are learning. These savvy students are laughing at the college-prep craziness and gliding into the global economy at 19 or 20 with a red-hot U.S. or Canadian diploma, sizzling 21st-century skills (including fluency in at least one foreign language), outrageously relevant experience, a blazing sense of direction--and NO DEBT.

Even in a recession, they have the skills to find thrilling and fulfilling work wherever they choose to live. And while I absolutely agree that middle school is a critical time for students to segue into self-directed learning, the high school years can trip up even the most motivated kids. Bold schoolers tweak the old model and soar by pursuing their most invigorating options. Our college-prep funnel is so limiting and must be opened up.

Susan, please contact me with your snail mail address and I'd be delighted to send you a complimentary copy of my book!

Thanks for your wonderful work with students! It's clear you are a passionate and creative teacher.


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Recent Comments

  • Maya Frost: Susan, Thanks so much for this thoughtful post. I'd like read more
  • Anthony Cody: Susan, I think you raise an important cautionary note. In read more




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