The University as Life Coach

Must colleges prepare their students “emotionally” to join the workforce?

What do you call an employee who is emotionally unprepared to work? Why, a recent college graduate, of course.

So says a new report by the Mary Christie Institute, a Massachusetts-based think tank “dedicated to improving the emotional and behavioral health of teens and young adults.” According to MCI, which surveyed 22- to 28-year-olds in possession of a bachelor’s degree, 39 percent of respondents faulted their colleges for failing to “prepare them for the emotional or behavioral impact of [their] transition to the workplace.” Among respondents who were experiencing “high financial stress” at the time of their survey-taking, the percentage of fault-finders was a whopping 50.

Commenting on the report for Higher Ed Dive, the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ Shawn VanDerziel stated that colleges now have an opportunity “to consider what experiences … can help students build emotional intelligence around work.” One is inclined to wonder, however, what is going on in the average university environment if the transition to full-time labor requires explicit training and a slew of specially designed “experiences.”

What is going on in the university if the transition to full-time labor requires a slew of specially designed “experiences”?After all, undergraduates are supposed to be putting in a full work week while in college. Hence the designation “full-time student,” which is meant to be (and once was) a literal description rather than a mere registration-office term of art. That the reader is likely chuckling at my naiveté reveals how far we have fallen where college-student effort is concerned. According to a recent survey by the higher-ed-planning firm, 64 percent of traditional undergraduates say they put “a lot” of effort into their schoolwork. Yet a full one-third of the allegedly high-effort cohort admit to spending five hours a week or less studying. A startling 70 percent of all respondents say they hit the books for no more than 10 hours a week. Since the average “full-time” undergrad is in the classroom for perhaps 12.5 hours weekly (15 credit hours times 50 minutes), it is highly likely that most “full-timers” are working their scholarly “job” for around 22.5 hours a week, if that.

Of course, 40 percent of full-time undergraduates work an actual job while enrolled, according to figures provided by the National Center for Education Statistics. Nevertheless, it is hard not to see in MCI’s workforce-“preparation” numbers a class of young people who are being introduced to real labor for the first time and who don’t much like it. If colleges really want to prepare their students for employment, they should chew on that theory for a moment or two. Perhaps the answer is—gasp!—to make classes harder, not to invest scarce resources in “how to be an adult” seminars.

It is undoubtedly problematic that so many young employees feel emotionally burdened by the workforce. Are colleges to blame? Perhaps. But not for the reason degree-holding 20-somethings seem to think.

Graham Hillard is the managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.