Going to College is About More Than Just Getting a Job

It’s a familiar narrative. Go to a great college. Earn a practical degree. Get a well-paying job. That’s generally the plan for most college students, and it makes sense. A study by the Federal Reserve notes that, “the average college graduate earns $78,000 per year, compared to $45,000 for those with only a high school diploma, which represents a premium of $33,000.”

Going to College is About More Than Just Getting a Job

So going to college to improve your job prospects is not a bad motive. But should it be your only motive, or even your top motive? This highly transactional way of looking at college may seem practical, but in reality, there is far more value to be found in your educational experience than just job training. And in fact, focusing singularly on your career prospects may prevent you from truly immersing yourself in that experience. College is so much more than a stepping stone to gainful employment. It also happens to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of a community, to access some of the best minds in your field, and to focus on your own personal growth.

These motives and others are often obscured behind the admittedly important ambition of landing a good job after school. But there is much to be gained in recognizing these motives, and allowing them to guide critical decisions like what courses to take, what activities to engage, and ultimately, what degree you’ll pursue.

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A Major Dilemma

Let’s start with a look at your choice of major. This is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make as a college student. Your major will dictate many of the courses you’ll take and, depending on your career goals, it may even be necessary for you to declare a specific major. If you plan to become a teacher, you will likely want to major in education. If you plan to become an accountant, majoring in accounting is probably a good idea.

But the truth is that far fewer students will ultimately pursue a job that matches their major. For one thing, odds are that the first major you choose will not be the one in which you earn a degree. According to the Department of Education at least 30% of students will switch majors at least once during their time in college, and, according to the Education Advisory Board, that number may in fact be as high as 80% of all students.

This is to suggest that many students enter college with one vision of their prospective career, but exit with another vision altogether. Of course, even at the point of graduation, this vision is just that—a mere vision. The reality is far more varied and, frankly, more interesting than that. So says the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which reports that only 27 percent of college graduates actually work in a field connected to their major!

Don’t fritter away the precious moments of college worrying about whether your major will land you a job. The statistics say it probably won’t. This is not to argue that your bachelor’s degree won’t be a valuable credential as you seek a job. It’s simply that it may not be the job you had anticipated. Try to enjoy your major for all it has to offer, as opposed (or in addition) to focusing on how this major will prepare you for a competitive job market. You’re building yourself as much as you’re building a résumé. Focus on the former with an open mind, and the latter will follow.

Your psychology major could lead you to a career in marketing; your education degree to a career in corporate training; your communication degree to a career in public health. Your business degree could be literally whatever you make of it. Today’s employer values transferable skills like critical thinking, communication, creativity, and collaboration. It may matter less how you come by these skills in college, so long as you master them. This means that your major could be extremely valuable, but in a field that you never expected. This is a great reason to think about your major as something more than a stepping stone to a job. Your major is a way to gain knowledge, skill, and enrichment that you’ll use in life and your career, wherever these lead.

Still not convinced? Take a look at The Top 10 Myths About College Majors Debunked.

That ’70s Show

College students have changed a lot since the 1970s. For one thing, there are a lot more of them. In 1978, with the U.S. gripped by inflation, disco enjoying cultural dominance, and National Lampoon’s Animal House opening in theaters, nearly 9 million Americans went off to college. In 2020, Disco is long dead, so is John Belushi, and more than 14.5 million students are enrolled in colleges (many online).

In other words, the number of bachelors competing for jobs today is dramatically higher than it was when Jimmy Carter was president. So too is the cost. These are obviously compelling reasons that the vast majority of college students are pretty confident that they’re in college in order to secure a good job. According to Inside Higher Education, roughly 85% of students in a recent survey indicated that they were indeed attending college in order to secure a job. This is a significant increase over the 2/3rds of students who answered that way in the 1970s.

But the article from Insider Higher Ed argues this is not proof that college students are somehow more career-oriented today. They only believe this to be true. According to Inside Higher Ed, a more qualitative assessment of the motives for college attendance provides far more nuanced insight. While a survey may overlook the complex range of factors that drive college choices, Insider Higher Ed’s research instead draws on complete narratives from 200 college students in order to reveal the following five motives for attending college:

  • To get into the best college;
  • To do what’s expected of them;
  • To get away;
  • To step it up; and
  • To extend themselves.

Evidence suggests that even those who believe their career ambitions are the leading reason for attending college are actually motivated by an array of different factors, many far less immediately tangible than post-graduate employment. Indeed, says Inside Higher Ed, the driving motivation for most students “is much more about getting into college, less about what college will help them do or attain. These students are swayed by everything from the opportunity to have the ‘classic college’ experience on a beautiful brick-and-mortar campus to the opportunity to reinvent themselves among new people at a prestigious place that is highly regarded.”

So perhaps we’re not so different from our bellbottom-wearing, disco-dancing predecessors. We may think we’re in college for the job, but research suggests we’re actually in college because we really want to have the experience of going to college and all that this entails from ivy covered walls and bustling campus lawns to brainy professors and a colorful cast of classmates.

If you’re starting college without a clear sense of what you plan to study, check out our 10 Tips for Success as an Undeclared Student.

Making the Most of Your Motives

None of the above is to suggest that your job shouldn’t be an important focus, and a source of consideration as you choose courses and, ultimately, your major. Instead, the case should be made that this goal is not at odds with other goals such as personal enrichment or even just the desire to be somewhere new and exciting. In fact, these motives should be treated as symbiotic, by both students and their schools.

Certainly, the most powerful justification for doing this—finding a balance between career ambition and educational enrichment—is the reality that most students arrive at school either without a clear sense of their career goals, or else this sense will likely change with greater knowledge, experience and personal growth.

Focusing too intently on your future career overlooks a key point. You can’t actually predict the future. In a sense, you’re putting the cart before the horse, and in doing so, depriving yourself the opportunity to organically discover unexpected strengths, to be inspired by unlikely sources, and to be drawn in directions that could never have occurred to you as a high school senior gazing to the fall semester ahead.

As Inside Higher Ed observes, “When people say students go to college to get a job, that statement ignores a significant amount of the subtleties that vary depending on a student’s specific situation. It also misrepresents what is, in fact, driving many students to choose college. And it misleads those of us in higher education into a debate filled with false dichotomies that ill serves both students and our institutions.”

Obviously, as much as college costs, it’s unrealistic to suggest that your career goals should be relegated to the back of your mind. But they don’t belong front and center either. You’ll have plenty of time to focus on your job when you have to show up and do it every day for a paycheck. In the meantime, don’t look so far ahead that you miss all the amazing stuff happening around you.

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If you need help finding the right major, take a look at our Focus on Declaring a Major.

If you’re still seeking out the best school for your needs, start your search for the Most Influential Schools in your discipline.