Why are so many students “drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose” and moving back to the family nest without a job after graduation?  According to a new book, Aspiring Adults Adrift, colleges themselves are the main culprits.  Co-authors and sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, argue that “colleges are disinvesting in faculty and investing in amenities.”  Instead of developing their students’ characters, the authors say four year universities are devoting their resources to attracting teenagers to their campuses. Colleges are functioning like businesses trying to bring in more clients. Too much money is spent on appealing to the client (student), and too little is spent on teaching these young adults the skills they’ll need in the outside world.  The authors’ thesis?  Colleges and universities are adrift like their students. Graduates leave with four years of happy memories (college was attractive, after all!) but no “clear way forward.”

     Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reached this frightening conclusion after assessing a diverse group of nearly 1,000 recent graduates and evaluating their progress two years after finishing their undergraduate studies. Almost 25% of these young adults were still living at home, and nearly 75% were still receiving some money from mom and dad.  More than half of those surveyed said their lives lacked direction. (!) As for employment: 7% reported being unemployed; 12% said they worked part-time, and 30% were working full-time, but earning less than $30,000.  Halfof those college graduates were  receiving less than $20,000 annually!

     As you’d expect, the media is enjoying  a feeding frenzy over these statistics. Even in Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Bruni couldn’t resist joining the debate (“Demanding More From College,” 9/7/14) over why so many young adults are adrift after graduation. Not that I blame him.  As the mother of 23 year old twins, I find myself inexorably drawn into the finding work after college discussion—depressing as I may find it.  While Max and Sarah are as different as night and day, neither of my twins has yet found full-time employment.

     It’s not surprising that my daughter on the autistic spectrum hasn’t found a job, despite overcoming the odds and graduating cum laude from Pace University with the class of 2014.   Making phone calls, sending out resumes and cover letters, and going on interviews are extremechallenges for a young adult with an autistic spectrum disorder.  And forget about networking!  Just explaining the concept of networking to Sarah would probably take at least an hour.  Even if she understood the nuances of networking, such subtle social maneuvers would be impossible for Sarah to implement.  Instead, Henry and I must network on her behalf—not an easy task even for proud and determined parents like us.   For the time being, Sarah lives in the family nest—albeit reluctantly. 

     Almost every day she tells me: “It’s not healthy for me to live here forever.”  Like any young woman, our daughter wants to “move on with her life” and live on her own or with her significant other.  It will probably take Sarah a few more years to master enough of the necessary life skills to live mostly independently. Sadly, she will probably always need some support and supervision.

     As for our son—a 2013 Vassar  graduate with a double major in film and English—Max has just officially moved out of the family nest this past week.  Although I’m proud to say he recently sold a film script, our son doesn’t have a full time job yet, nor is he earning a steady income.  From my perspective,  Max fits into the category of graduates with happy college memories but no bridge or spring board into the employment world.   Perhaps if he’d majored in economics, computer science or some other “practical” business-related field—pre-law, pre-med etc.— instead of pursuing a liberal arts degree, Max’s bank account would be more robust. 

     Do I wish he’d picked a different major?  Definitely not.  Bursting with talent as a writer, comedian and film maker, Max MUST chase his dream– even if that means running longer and harder, and receiving  less material satisfaction than some of his friends.  The world is a sadder, less interesting place without Robin Williams and Joan Rivers.  In order to attempt to fill their shoes, young people like Max should be encouraged to pursue liberal arts degrees, the better to learn and practice their crafts.  Like salmon swimming upstream, only a few of these college graduates will go on to make a living as artists. Could Vassar and other liberal arts colleges do a better job of preparing these “artsy” students for the real world?  Perhaps…but I believe the most important mission of any college or university is to stretch each student’s thinking and develop their analytical and communication skills by providing gifted professors along with diverse curriculum and student populations.  We need to educate moral, creative, thinking humans, not just worker drones. In all of these areas, I think Vassar did an excellent job.

     Frank Bruni, the New York Times writer who reviewed Aspiring Adults Adrift, believes that blaming colleges for inadequately preparing graduates to enter the work force avoids a broader and deeper discussion.  Along with the book’s authors, Bruni acknowledges additional worrisome survey data from outside the classroom: over 30% of college graduates read on-line or print newspapers “monthly or never,” and almost 40% discuss public affairs “monthly or never.”  For Bruni, this type of social and political disconnection is where the true problem lies.  He argues that too many college students stick with the same types of friends and interests they had in high school, rather than pursuing more diverse relationships and activities that can change their perspectives.  In other words, these students don’t grow into true adults because they don’t move out of their comfort zones to engage with others in the world who might offer new or challenging ideas.

      While Bruni  blames the students—in addition to the colleges—for not being sufficiently bold and adventurous in their social and educational pursuits,  I think there are other issues that hold back our young people.  Aside from the anemic economy, (at its worst when the surveys for Aspiring Adults Adrift were conducted), there are some obvious, rock bottom truths that are being conveniently overlooked.  Some students are smarter, more talented AND more ambitious than others, regardless of their economic circumstances.  And no one can argue that wealthier kids who graduate without student loans have more money and connections to help them succeed.  In essence, life is unfair. Not just in America, but (most especially) in the rest of the world.  Perhaps, as Bruni suggests, it is the job of all adults—young and old—to work on leveling the playing field for the betterment of everyone.

     Interestingly, Vassar College—Max’s (and my) alma mater—ranked first as the most economically diverse among top colleges rated in The New York Times’ “Measuring Colleges’ Success in Enrolling the Less Affluent” (9/9/14).  About 23% of Vassar’s freshmen in recent years have received federal Pell grants, indicating that they’re drawn from the bottom 40% of the income distribution.  After accounting for scholarships, the average annual cost of attending Vassar for lower-income students is about $6,000, most of which is covered by campus jobs and loans.  Vassar’s economic diversity—together with its race, gender and geographic diversity—enabled Max to meet a wide variety of people with whom he could exchange different ideas and world views. According to Frank Bruni, it would almost seem like my son hit the college jackpot—until you read the research that says individual colleges attended by upper middle class students have little effect on their eventual earnings.  (So far that’s true for Max).  However, the good news is that poor students do derive extra benefits from attending top colleges.  More good news is on the horizon.  Those colleges toward the bottom of The Times’ list all stated (perhaps out of shame?) that they were committed to improving economic diversity. (Side note to The Times: Check back with the stingy schools in a few years to see if they follow through). 

      The bad news?  In order to offer such generous financial aid, Vassar has “taken steps to hold down spending on faculty and staff.”  One of my son’s most inspiring professors was let go. The film department seems to be changing its focus from film making to film theory, (perhaps in an effort to cut costs?)  It remains to be seen whether these financial moves will be in the best long-term interests of college graduates at Vassar and other selective schools that opt to spend less on faculty and more on low income students.

     There’s more bad news about debating the morally proper mission for colleges. No matter how economically diverse a college becomes, or how much money it raises to hire and keep professors who challenge their students, college graduates with disabilities like my daughter have dim prospects in today’s job market.  Any discussion about whether colleges should do more to prepare neurotypical students for the job market MUST include the growing numbers of students with learning disabilities. Unless our society encourages and provides for young adults on the autistic spectrum—now an inescapable epidemic—my daughter and others like her will be much worse off than those “aspiring” or “adrift.”  We can’t allow generations of people on the autistic spectrum to be forever trapped in childhood, dependent on parents and taxpayers.  We must find ways to set all our children free.

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