College as the Ultimate Software Simulation
(Or "Can College Prepare You for Real Life?")
Last spring, I took a road trip with my then sixteen-year-old as we visited five colleges in six days. We drove a huge loop, traveling nearly 800 miles in total, heading northwest from New York City, where we live, stopping in Ithaca, Syracuse, Bennington, Boston, and western Connecticut. It's an annual rite of passage for thousands of families, and for someone in my line of work, one that brought into very sharp focus much of what I have been treating as somewhat . . . academic . . . these past few years: the value of a four-year, brick and mortar college experience in preparing people for adulthood and the workplace.
First, a couple of questions:
1. You can't get a job without a college degree, but what's the likelihood of getting a job with a college degree?
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), in 2013, only 29.3% of graduates had found jobs prior to graduation. A follow-up of recent grads revealed that 59% had found jobs 6-8 months after graduation.
2. What factors impact on how prepared college graduates feel for "the real world?"
What combination of skills, luck, and extra-curricular activity did it take for those 59%, and how much of a role did their alma mater play in their landing that job?
The colleges we visited ranged from enrollments just over 21,000 to just over 700. Dormitories ranged from concrete boxes to cozy cottages. The curricula we were exploring went from highly prescribed to incredibly open. The opportunities for study abroad varied somewhat, particularly when looking at specialized curricula, but most of the colleges provided a good amount of support for making that happen. All of these factors come onto play in terms of learning to function in a larger social group, to make yourself heard, to plan ahead and make decisions for yourself, and to experience other cultures.
What stood out most to me in terms of preparedness were the opportunities for internships available at the different institutions and how integral a part they played each college's overall curriculum.
Without the opportunity to actually put into practice what you've been learning in the classroom, the chances for being prepared for the working world decrease substantially. Or without the exposure to the potential range of career options and job roles within those for any given career, the less prepared a graduate is and the more unrealistic the scenario of one's education becomes.
I cut my instructional design teeth on the development of complex, scenario-based learning programs. In these programs, we placed our learners in different roles in which they were required to either make decisions for themselves or advise others. While our learners were provided with tools with which to make decisions, we expected them to fail, and when they did, they had access to knowledge building and better decision making.
So, at the end of the day (or at the end of a nearly 800-mile journey), the great value of a four-year, brick-and-mortar college education is the series of scenarios one engages in on the road to adulthood and employment. How safe or how realistic those scenarios need to be really depends on the student and the selected program of study. But it is the blend of formal and informal learning, the academic and experiential learning that is going to help prepare people for the workplace and drive their success once they arrive.