We are Asking the Wrong Question

I’ve counseled many prospective college students in my career and I’ve noticed that the vast majority of them are being asked the wrong question.  The question they keep getting asked is: “What do you want to do for a living?”  This question makes sense, right? First, discover what the student is interested in becoming, then provide advice about what major s/he should declare in order to get that job. 

This logic makes some degree of sense if two things hold true. First, the prospective student is sure about what s/he wants to do for a living. Second, there is an academic major s/he can take that actually leads to that career. If a student knows she wants to be a Certified Public Accountant, for example, she should pursue a degree in accounting.  Pretty simple, right?

But more often than not, this approach isn’t all that helpful for two reasons.  First, Teenagers’ interests in careers are often very fluid. According to a recent survey of 165,000 high school juniors and seniors conducted by YouthTruth, only “45.7% of students agree that their school has helped them figure out which careers match their interests/abilities.” Hence, many students will not be able to give a reliable or consistent answer to the question, “What do you want to do for a living?” Furthermore, as a recent US News and World Report article explains, most careers don’t have a clear bachelor’s degree that leads to them. For example, if you want to be an insurance agent what major is the right one to pursue? Should you get a degree in business, psychology, communications, or something else? The truth is, all of these majors will work as a foundation for this career.

Instead of, “What do you want to do for a living?” I think the better starting question to ask prospective students is: “Who are you?”

I’ll explain what I mean by this in my next blog post. 

Is College the Right Decision?

Decisions, Decisions” CC Image by Gerry Dincher

The evidence clearly shows that completing a college degree is still an excellent decision for most people. Here’s a fairly recent summary by the Pew Research Center for why college is still worth completing.  In a nutshell the research indicates that:

  1. An individual with a bachelor’s degree typically makes around $15,000 more per year than an individual that simply graduated from high school.
  2. Young adults who graduate from college are less likely to be living in their parent’s home than those who do not graduate from college.
  3. College grads are more satisfied with their jobs.
  4. Having a college education is even more important today for keeping one out of poverty than it has been in the past.
  5. The majority of college graduates say that attending college was worth it.

I want to also respond to an all too common argument I hear these days.

Sometimes people will mention a wealthy or influential person who didn’t graduate from college and use the example as proof that you don’t need to go to college to be successful.  Steve Jobs didn’t graduate nor did Bill Gates, for example.  The part they forget to highlight is that both of these people actually started college and were in college when they got the inspiration to become entrepreneurs.  These men are rare outliers, but even then, they were catapulted onto successful paths due to experiences they had in college. Hence even for these men, going to college was critical to their success.

A study by Jonathan Wai and Heiner Rindermann, supports this point.  The authors found that among the nearly 12,000 top US leaders they examined, 94% attended college. 

Yes, you can make a difference without going to college. However, if you want to give yourself the greatest opportunity for achieving financial success and/or influencing society, getting a college degree is the smart way to start.