This college commencement season many young graduates can expect a common question from their families: “What's next?”
To help answer that question, a small college in Maine is offering a new curriculum focused on career preparation. This change comes as a response to many liberal arts graduates finding themselves underemployed — landing in jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree.
Over the past few years, Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, has added new courses to its five-week, short-term semester that follows final exams. A course on branding is part of a new curriculum that the college calls “Purposeful Work.”
Bates alum Peter Bysshe, a Brooklyn-based brand consultant, teaches the course — not a professor.
"When I work with designers, I love watching them get from a stuck place to an unstuck place,” Bysshe said. “We recognize that liberal arts students can do anything. We have them do real things so they can feel what it's like, so it's not just rhetoric anymore."
In addition to practitioner-taught courses like Bysshe’s, Bates fully funds internships that help students regardless of their income bridge college to a career.
“College has always been about preparing graduates for life and work,” President Clayton Spencer said.
Ever since the recession 10 years ago, Spencer said, Bates has responded to increasingly price-conscious students and parents demanding a clearer path to well-paying jobs.
"When I came to Bates, it was still within the years after the crash,” recalled Spencer, who arrived in 2012. “And the most sort of prevalent meme out there was that students were graduating from excellent colleges, moving back to their parents’ basements and becoming baristas."
So Spencer, a former vice president of policy at Harvard, challenged faculty to focus more on career preparation.
"If you get love and work right in your life, you're kind of done,” Spencer said. “That's what you need to do, and I decided we should not be prissy about that."
Workforce specialists agree. They recommend colleges layer job preparation on top of the traditional education they offer.
"In many cases in higher ed, you don't often have industry practitioners teaching, and so they can't actually help the student translate those skills into more marketable competencies for a potential employer," said Michelle Weise, a senior vice president of the Strada Institute for the Future of Work.
Strada and the Boston-based labor market analytics firm Burning Glass conducted research that found four in 10 recent college graduates are underemployed in their first job and, if they start off underemployed, they are more likely to stay that way five and 10 years out.
“We generally tend to think of underemployment as a very short-term problem,” Weise said. “We say, 'That newly-minted grad who is serving coffees at Starbucks, they'll find their footing soon.' It's not a short-term problem. It's a long-term problem with long-term financial implications."
Underemployed graduates, on average, earn $10,000 less each year than those in jobs that match their level of education.
At Bates, senior Callie Reynolds just graduated. The psychology major from West Hartford, Conn., enrolled in the new Purposeful Work program. Bates paid her to do a summer internship mentoring teenagers in her hometown.
Reynolds said the new practitioner-taught courses gave her the tools to navigate her next steps.
"They exposed me to different careers and opportunities that I otherwise would not have known about,” Reynolds said. “It's all about figuring out what I want to do with my life."
So, what's next? Reynolds is moving to Stockholm to work for a study abroad company. Although she's not sure that job will lead to a career, she's confident her education has prepared her to find her path eventually.