Commentary

Obama’s College Rating System Won’t Solve Graduate Unemployment Problem

By Dr. James Thrasher | May 29, 2015 | 1:12pm EDT
President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 in Buffalo, N.Y., where he began his two day bus tour to speak about college financial aid. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Early in his second term, President Obama charged the U.S. Department of Education to develop a new rating system for all higher education institutions. College presidents across the country are concerned and are asking some important questions. Jamienne Studley, a deputy undersecretary of education, compares the task of rating colleges to “rating a blender ... not so hard to get your mind around.”

Two questions immediately come to mind: Is the information currently available to the public for making informed college decisions insufficient? And, most importantly, what is the primary motivation for the president’s rating system initiative?

The design of this system, if it’s going to be a valid assessment tool, is going to be extremely complex due to the uniqueness of each institution’s mission, student body, financial situation, tuition fee structure, and many other factors. So to compare “Consumer Reports’” ability to evaluate blenders to this rating project is preposterous.

Responsible students and families have been making well-informed higher education decisions for decades. The marketplace provides a plethora of information and data to the discerning education buyer. There is no need to impose a federal rating system.

The Obama administration has stated that the main reasons for the rating system are spikes in tuition, low graduation rates, accessibility for disadvantaged students, graduates’ earnings, and the debt that college students are accumulating. All these reasons have their place in the higher education discussion, but I believe, based on my research, the major underlying impetus is jobs for college graduates. This concern is valid, but how should it be addressed? I believe the president is looking for a solution in the wrong place.

There are many factors related to why college graduates are not finding employment. As a director of career services for over 20 years, I believe that career development offices as well as students have dropped the ball. Career development offices need to reconsider the presuppositions upon which their offices are based. Following the next forecasted employment trend, as suggested by the president, should not be the profession’s focus so that placement numbers meet some predetermined expectation. I believe career development philosophy should be based on an understanding of calling and vocation. Investing in the lives of students and assisting them to discern their God-given design and their special fit in the marketplace is a focus that I have found serves students well and produces the kinds of results President Obama desires. For students to understand their design is a powerful and motivating force. A student's understanding of his or her vocational calling provides direction, discernment, occupational connections, intrinsic motivation and the keys to success.

There is a paradoxical picture regarding college students’ desires for employment, and their willingness to commit themselves to achieve. A 2015 Higher Education Research Institute freshman survey reported that 88 percent of them said their primary motivation for enrolling in college was to get a job. Certainly, one would think this desire translates into action. Not true. A Talent Marks survey found that 95 percent of graduates don’t have a clear understanding of how to get a job. This is further substantiated by the Career Advisory Board’s report entitled “Effectively Counseling Graduating Students,” which surveyed 600 career services directors who believed that 77 percent of their own students did not have what it takes to secure a job. Don Philabaum, in his book “The Unemployed Grad,” states that "over 61 percent of graduating college seniors either have never gone to their career center or visited two or fewer times during their senior year."  Students are not taking ownership of the responsibility for their career development process, which requires a significant time commitment to secure meaningful employment before student loan payments become due.

The tangible effect of a career services office's mission to help students realize and pursue their God-given vocational callings can be inspiring. At the college where I work, Grove City College, 95 percent of the Class of 2014 was either in graduate/professional school or gainfully employed six months after graduation. For the Class of 2013, the placement rate was 96 percent. Our students are sincerely engaged by the understanding of “calling” – that a sovereign God has uniquely crafted them and He has a place for them in the world of work. Our experience demonstrates this type of career development journey yields outstanding opportunities. The approach and program delivery of Grove City College’s Career Services Office has been nationally recognized by the “Princeton Review Guide,” which recognizes the top 20 career services offices in the nation. Since the inception of this recognition in 2008, Grove City has been named to the list three times.

When it comes to helping college seniors find rewarding employment or select graduate programs, it has little to do with blenders or rating systems. If President Obama is truly interested in envisioning practical solutions to the plight of the current college student, I suggest that he reconsider his view of career development and redefine his vocational perspective. This will negate the need for a national rating system and promote a real solution for the college graduate unemployment problem.

Dr. James Thrasher is the director of Grove City College’s career services office and the coordinator of The Center for Vision & Values working group on calling.

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published by The Center for Vision & Values of Grove City College.

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