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College Path May Not Be Best

by Brandon Busteed

If Americans are judging the colleges they choose based on whether they can get good jobs, they may be better off not choosing a college at all. It turns out that college graduates are significantly less engaged in their jobs than everyone else. And this finding is true across all professions, age ranges, and income levels. College graduates are less engaged than technical/vocational school grads, high school grads, and even high school dropouts. This finding alone is about as devastating as it gets for higher education, but it's actually worse than you think.

The key driver of college graduates being less engaged is that they are much less likely than everyone else to say they have an opportunity to "do what they do best every day." In other words, something about college isn't working -- it appears it doesn't do a good enough job of bringing students closer to figuring out what they are best at. The implications of this are so profound that it will literally change everything in higher education. From rethinking what its ultimate purpose should be, to the very basics of how we teach, coach, mentor, and develop learners.

College -- based on recent economic analyses -- does produce higher earnings over a lifetime. But it does not always lead to a "good job" - one in which people are engaged in their work and doing what they do best. At least, not compared to everyone else who doesn't go to college. The magnitude of this failure can't be over-exaggerated, especially considering what Gallup knows about human development and well-being -- where nothing is more fundamental than doing what you're best at every day.

When Gallup first discovered that college graduates are less engaged, our researchers theorized that college grads may be less engaged because they have higher expectations for their managers and workplaces -- expectations that go unmet. But after digging into the data more deeply, that doesn't seem to be the case.

First, those who go on to get a postgraduate degree have slightly higher engagement than those with just a college degree -- so, it's not automatically the case that the more educated you are, the less engaged you become based on increasing expectations. College may produce high expectations, but certainly a postgraduate degree would only further elevate those expectations after one spends additional years pursuing even more advanced degrees. Second, if it was all about higher expectations, then we would see college grads rate differently on "expectation-linked" items, such as wanting their opinions at work to count more or needing more praise and recognition for their work. But this isn't the case.

So, why are college grads less likely to report they get to do what they're best at every day? We are interested in your answer to that question, but here's the best we've got so far: First, there are many college graduates who went down the "achiever" path in life. They were good at school, got good grades, always did what they were told, and generally stuck to the preconceived notions our society has held about success in life. Namely, that if you go to college, things turn out better. At least, that's what we've always been led to believe. Many of these achievers, in their drive to achieve all the things they were told they should, somehow never took, or perhaps were not allowed, the time to pause for a moment and think carefully about what they actually like to do. About what they're actually best at. Societal ideals drove them to achieve something for someone else at the cost of depriving themselves of achieving what is best for them.

Second, we have either too few jobs for college grads in general, or too many degrees misaligned with the jobs available in the workplace. Studies show that 50% of recent college graduates are unemployed or in jobs that don't require a college degree. We've probably had this issue for a while -- not just among recent grads. Gallup found that, indeed, recent college grads are less engaged in their jobs than are older college grads. But this age differential is true across all education levels. In other words, younger folks are just less engaged in their jobs in general than older folks -- college degree or otherwise. At the very least, we have a lot of college graduates getting jobs that don't put their best talents and skills to work because of a big disconnect between degrees conferred and the jobs available today. At worst, we have a college system that is not helping students accomplish the most fundamental need -- getting them closer to what they do best.

Whatever we're doing now in higher education, it needs to change. We need to be much more in tune with the fundamentals of helping each person figure out what they like to do and what they do best. And this -- of all things -- is something Gallup can offer the most help with, through supporting strengths-based development for students and their mentors.

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