Sociology Focus
Nathan Palmer
Author: Nathan Palmer

C’s Earn Degrees, But Skills Pay Bills

If you graduate from college with a degree, does it matter how hard you worked or how much you learned? I mean, you have a degree, right? So, you should be able to get an entry level job with most companies, right? In this post, Nathan Palmer shares some recent research that can help us answer these questions.

“As long as you graduate you’ll find a good job.” I heard this a lot when I was an undergraduate. Usually from a friend of mine who was focused more on partying and less on his/her schoolwork. “After we graduate no one will ever care what your GPA is or how seriously you took your homework. All that matters is you graduate.”

That’s a bold hypothesis about how our social world works. But is it accurate?

One study that might help us answer this question was done by a team of researchers led by Richard Arum. They used a test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to measure a students ability to write well, critically think, analytically reason, and problem solve. They found that students CLA scores were connected to successfully transitioning after graduation.

Unemployment by CLA Score

For instance, when we compare the top CLA performers to the bottom, we find that low performers were three times more likely to be unemployed.

Credit Card Debt and Living at Home by CLA

Low CLA performers were also found to be nearly twice as likely to be living with mom and dad after graduation. Finally, low CLA performers were more likely to have amassed credit card debt than their higher CLA counterparts.

All of this evidence suggests that your ability to write, critically think, analytically reason, and problem solve has an impact on your ability to secure a job and be financially independent after you graduate. Or more simply put, graduates with honed skills transition into the economy easier.

Not So Fast

While this data helps us get closer to our answer, it’s not perfect. For instance, the researchers were looking at a students’ CLA score during their senior year and not at the amount of CLA growth a student experienced over the course of their college education. So it’s entirely possible, that many students came to college with a high CLA score and left with the same high CLA score. In this hypothetical case, it doesn’t matter how hard a student worked throughout college, they came in as bright freshmen and left as bright graduates. Other evidence suggests that of all high school graduates only 68% have “college ready” English skills and just over half of all graduates (53%) poses the reading skills they’ll need in college. So while it’s possible that a student could come into college with a high CLA score already, it’s not likely.

Furthermore, I’d like to see the what the median family income was for each of the five CLA groups. It’s possible that the high CLA group was full of students from wealthy backgrounds. If this is the case, then having ample family resources to tap into may explain why these students didn’t amass credit card debt. Also, wealthier parents are likely to have more business connections and a strong social network they can rely on to secure their child a job opportunity.

Every Class is an Opportunity

After you graduate you will be competing with graduates from all over for jobs. The skills you bring to the job market are one of the things that can set you apart. The CLA study suggests that the skills that are most important in predicting future success are not discipline specific, but rather they are general skills. What’s great is that every class is a chance to work on your core skills. So the next time you hear someone say, “It’s so stupid I have to take [insert class name] because I am a [insert seemingly unrelated major].” You can reply back, “No, the core skills of writing, critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and problem solving are what’s important and they can be developed in any class regardless of your major.”… or you can just smile to yourself and not be a know-it-all.

Dig Deeper:

  1. This article discusses what factors make a student successful after graduation, but this begs the question, what is success? Imagine that you have recently graduated, what would your life look like if you were “successful”?
  2. In the “Not So Fast” section, we critically thought about the CLA study. That is, we asked ourselves, what is this study not addressing or what possible alternative explanations could there be for the study’s findings. Why is this an important step to critical thinking?
  3. Recently a senior vice president of Coca-Cola told a group of college students that liberal arts degrees are the best preparation for a career in business. Read this short article about his message and then discuss why you agree or disagree with his argument.
  4. What do you plan to do after you graduate? How are you building your skills right now for that career path?

References:

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