I needed to eat

NASA launch of XTE (X-ray Timing Explorer)

The list was in the newspaper, and I knew I needed to eat.  The black and white print revealed the top ten average starting salaries for recent college graduates.  If I was going to go to college for four years, it made sense to pursue the field that would lead to the best paying job.  And so, I became an engineer.

Polls today indicate that the number one reason for going to college is “…to get a better job.”  Although parents and students increasingly worry about the ROI (Return on Investment) of a 4-year degree, a college education has long been considered a “ticket” to a better standard of living.  Yet, for all the pressure on students to get a college degree, limited resources exist to prepare them to make informed decisions about the thousands (maybe millions?) of career pathways that exist.

Most high school students rely on personal networks to advise them of career options: family, friends, and school educators.  But who is qualified to speak about more than a handful of professions?  The best any adult can do is convey a little slice of knowledge regarding what he/she knows the most about, and the next best thing is to pass a student along to someone who might know more about something else.  Hopefully, teens can guide on the information nuggets they collect from multiple sources, but ask adults how they chose their career path and most will point to a single event that heavily influenced their decision-making–a single data point that failed to comprehend all the available options.

If the goal is to get a decent job, students need to understand what individual college majors entail and what jobs are likely to result from each major.  College students should not have to spend exorbitant tuition dollars to sample their way through general study courses to hopefully find a subject of interest, and then find out many of those classes don’t count toward a degree of choice. Similarly, students should not have to be surprised by disappointing internship or job prospects.  Students should have the opportunity to learn about college outcomes before college.

If I think back to how a simple newspaper item influenced my thinking so many moons ago, I’m struck by how much I identify with the job mindset of today’s students.  College was not something that I aspired to for the sake of intellectual pursuit.  To me, it was a gateway to earnings that would allow me to put food on the table.  We all need to eat.

Fortunately, engineering worked out okay for me, although I wonder now what I would have chosen to study if I had been more aware of my options.  My 18-year self may still have picked engineering as the shortest route to the best income, but I’ll never know for sure.

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