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Thursday, July 18, 2013

College Path May Not Be Best

By Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup Education

If Americans are judging the colleges they choose based on whether they can get good jobs, they may be better off not choosing a college at all. It turns out that college graduates are significantly less engaged in their jobs than everyone else. And this finding is true across all professions, age ranges, and income levels. College graduates are less engaged than technical/vocational school grads, high school grads, and even high school dropouts. This finding alone is about as devastating as it gets for higher education, but it’s actually worse than you think. 

The key driver of college graduates being less engaged is that they are much less likely than everyone else to say they have an opportunity to “do what they do best every day.” In other words, something about college isn’t working -- it appears it doesn’t do a good enough job of bringing students closer to figuring out what they are best at. The implications of this are so profound that it will literally change everything in higher education. From rethinking what its ultimate purpose should be, to the very basics of how we teach, coach, mentor, and develop learners.

College -- based on recent economic analyses -- does produce higher earnings over a lifetime. But it does not always lead to a “good job” – one in which people are engaged in their work and doing what they do best. At least, not compared to everyone else who doesn’t go to college. The magnitude of this failure can’t be over-exaggerated, especially considering what Gallup knows about human development and wellbeing -- where nothing is more fundamental than doing what you’re best at every day.    

When Gallup first discovered that college graduates are less engaged, our researchers theorized that college grads may be less engaged because they have higher expectations for their managers and workplaces -- expectations that go unmet. But after digging into the data more deeply, that doesn’t seem to be the case. 

First, those who go on to get a postgraduate degree have slightly higher engagement than those with just a college degree -- so, it’s not automatically the case that the more educated you are, the less engaged you become based on increasing expectations. College may produce high expectations, but certainly a postgraduate degree would only further elevate those expectations after one spends additional years pursuing even more advanced degrees. Second, if it was all about higher expectations, then we would see college grads rate differently on “expectation-linked” items, such as wanting their opinions at work to count more or needing more praise and recognition for their work. But this isn’t the case.

So, why are college grads less likely to report they get to do what they’re best at every day? We are interested in your answer to that question, but here’s the best we’ve got so far: First, there are many college graduates who went down the “achiever” path in life. They were good at school, got good grades, always did what they were told, and generally stuck to the preconceived notions our society has held about success in life. Namely, that if you go to college, things turn out better. At least, that’s what we’ve always been led to believe. Many of these achievers, in their drive to achieve all the things they were told they should, somehow never took, or perhaps were not allowed, the time to pause for a moment and think carefully about what they actually like to do. About what they’re actually best at. Societal ideals drove them to achieve something for someone else at the cost of depriving themselves of achieving what is best for them. 

Second, we have either too few jobs for college grads in general, or too many degrees misaligned with the jobs available in the workplace. Studies show that 50% of recent college graduates are unemployed or in jobs that don’t require a college degree. We’ve probably had this issue for a while -- not just among recent grads. Gallup found that, indeed, recent college grads are less engaged in their jobs than are older college grads. But this age differential is true across all education levels. In other words, younger folks are just less engaged in their jobs in general than older folks -- college degree or otherwise. At the very least, we have a lot of college graduates getting jobs that don’t put their best talents and skills to work because of a big disconnect between degrees conferred and the jobs available today. At worst, we have a college system that is not helping students accomplish the most fundamental need -- getting them closer to what they do best.

Whatever we’re doing now in higher education, it needs to change. We need to be much more in tune with the fundamentals of helping each person figure out what they like to do and what they do best. And this -- of all things -- is something Gallup can offer the most help with, through supporting strengths-based development for students and their mentors.

Read more about these findings on

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Eric-Wubbo Lameijer said...
July 18, 2013 at 10:28 PM  

Fascinating blogpost! I've sent a link to some of my acquiantances.

Some other possible causes (perhaps you have evidence for or against)
1) many people with college degrees have jobs where they don't see the result of a day's work. A bricklayer can see a house - but highly-educated people may make less tangible things, so perhaps have fewer feelings of accomplishment
2) less working together with others?
3) more cutthroat competition / 'politicking' to get ahead of one's colleagues?

However, the difference between 'normal' college degree and postgraduate degrees remains difficult to explain that way. Though it reminds me of a recent article in New Scientist which claimed that whereas undergraduates studying in a foreign country were as likely to endorse corruption as people in their home country, students going for PhD degrees had significantly higher integrity. I wonder whether there is something peculiar about people pursuing postgraduate degrees (then again, they may also more easily find fitting jobs)

Anonymous said...
July 29, 2013 at 4:20 PM  

High school graduates today would likely be able to perform the work of university graduates of the 80s and 90s simply by relying on Google and Wikipedia.Further, I would love to see a scatterplot of Fortune 500 per employee training & development spend overlaid on these numbers. Most of the jobs that "require" a degree today only do in order to shrink the applicant pool and reduce training budgets.

Anonymous said...
September 12, 2013 at 10:32 AM  

30+ years out of college. I've spent these years working in the field that matched my degree, which I choose after my father struggled in this part of his work. Human Resources/Labor Relations. It was almost impossible to understand how I contributed to the success of the 2 Fortune 500 organizations I was employed by.

I "survived" by volunteering outside of work as a firefighter/EMT - immediate job satisfaction of pulling someone out of a burning building or saving a life/comforting a very sick/injured person.

In other words, I paid the bills during the daytime and "felt great about life" at night and on weekends. More people should try this.

I've been fortunate to recetnly combine the skills gained from both "careers" into a new role. My employer valued both parts of my life and has taken significant risk to allow me to lead my current team - neither HR or emergency response work, but using skills from both areas. It took 30 years, but I am now doing what I do best every day.

Anonymous said...
December 1, 2013 at 7:17 PM  

Astonishing to think that colleges should be responsible for the decisions people make for their lives. But maybe this is a result of the onslaught by conservative business types telling colleges they need just to teach people employable skills, with priority going to jobs that are in demand and pay well. So plenty of people have piled into the few fields left in which there is some kind of surety of being hired and making a decent living. Additionally, companies aren't interested in structuring themselves around what their employees have to offer: fit Tab A in Slot B and get on with it. And why pour one's heart and soul and (over)time into a job when those with the most advanced skills and years with the company are let go in favor of cheaper workers or ditched in mergers? Finally, isn't the more important correlation whether or not being engaged at work translates to degraded quality of work or productivity? There also seems to be an underlying assumption that work is the ultimate fulfillment. Did the survey question workers' happiness? And could this be definitively linked to engagement at work? I'm astonished at such shoddy conclusions. Or perhaps not. Possibly those who came to the conclusion took degrees in practical fields, rather than in what they were good at. Perhaps some work disengagement on display? A secret cri de coeur from Gallup employees?

Anonymous said...
December 1, 2013 at 7:31 PM  

Self-serving survey. Please explain "digging deeper into the data" -- what data was there that wasn't presented?

Agree that many young people try to do what is expected of them; these obedient types tend to be better-disciplined and can do the work required in college, but may not be following their hearts. But, then, there's the need to pay bills, which eliminates about half of the degrees offered in college today. So, do they major in ceramics and happily starve?

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