The US dropped from first to 12th among developed nations in terms of the number of citizens who are college degree holders; this sparked a nationwide frenzy of opinions, going all the way to the Whitehouse. President Obama commenting in a speech that for the first time in a generation we have young people who are less educated than their parents; experts blame everything from American self satisfaction and complacency to poor high school prep for the lower college graduation rate and thus the drop in ranking. One vocal opposer of the current k-12 system saying we can’t have an education system on an agrarian calendar where school ends at 2:45, advocating more school days in a year and longer days more on track with the international community. Others cite the lower admission standards and the devaluing of the degree saying employers know that the degree is proof of little more than a student’s ability to show up. While the administration vows to implement new strategies to increase the number of college educated Americans, others say the stats are crying foul and still others are trying to sort out what it means for them.

Experts can blame the K-12 environment all they want, the calendar, the number of days, but facts are coming in on schools who have switched to 4 day weeks due to budget cuts; schools are finding less absenteeism in both students and teachers, better focus and improved test scores. So called experts can blame poor high school prep and a need for remediation, usually in reading or math, all they want, however most colleges have compensated by providing the remediation, and for those that don’t, there are plenty of 2 year community colleges where students can better their skills then go on to a 4 year college program. Coincidentally only 4 of the 10 recommendations for improving college completion rates, increasing the number of degree holders had anything to do with the k-12 system; number 2 on the list was enhancing college counseling of middle and high school students number 3 was high school dropout prevention. Lower on the list, but no less important, came things like clarifying the college admissions process, offering college options to adult education programs and keeping college affordable. Critics of the report cite that perhaps other countries have not seen diminishing returns on higher education the US has, certain it is an eventuality, thus equating it to crying wolf when there isn’t even a Chihuahua in sight.

Unfortunately for the first time in a generation we have a group of youth seeing the limitations of higher education; for the first time in a generation we have a group of young people who do not see the benefit of a college degree in terms of employment, whether that be type of job gained or salary earned, too many find themselves both unemployed and unemployable after receiving a degree. Those who are employed, post college, often find themselves in high school level jobs. Also for the first time in a generation we have parents and students least able to afford college, hints the cases of do not have a degree in 6 years phenomenon reported by experts scrutinizing higher education. Other factors include class availability several universities are progressing to a 5year format for this reason. Prior to the recession a high school student in a factory town was making $500 a week debating the need to graduate high school; in light of such cases many are asking do we need all the degrees? Does this national ranking matter as much as they would like us to believe?

Not included in the report were jobs that may require classes, training, certification or licensure instead of a formal degree- realtors, tax agents, airline pilots and air traffic controllers all fall under such a heading. Some of the highest growing jobs are in the medical field and require training, classes only; a key component considering several members of the current generation say one of their goals is to help people, dental hygienists, CNA’s, physical therapy assistants, medical assistants, massage therapists, just to name a few. Additionally some young people get lucky and land high school jobs, get involved with internships and service learning opportunities that give the all coveted experience more and more in demand, which makes a degree less important. Regional demographics play a huge role in this too; manufacturing hubs across the country are less likely to need degree holders. Areas with a large number of opportunities for internships, practical experience, employers willing to train means less need to get a degree. It can even be argued that vocational, technical training are the new degrees of choice leaving “plain old” college graduates in the cold.

Over the span of the last generation employers have gotten the mistaken idea in their heads that a college degree, in whatever field, teaches students all the nuances and procedures of a broad degree such as social work; they assume all degree disciplines come with capstones such as internships, leading them to think they don’t or shouldn’t have to train an employee, least of all a college graduate. On top of that employers are routinely under the misconception that colleges are glorified finishing schools teaching everything from phone skills, sales skills, customer service, to business etiquette, for non business majors, to non degree related, even basic computer skills. It has nothing to do with standards so lax, or too lax in anything close to the majority of institutions; it is that A- there are so many more with degrees, employers can cherry pick the ones lucky enough to have had practical experience, second to that the ones who went to well known schools like Harvard or Yale and B- employers are making demands on the degrees themselves that they were never designed for.

Despite the presence of a college degree you, the employer, the intern supervisor, still have to teach how things are done at your place of business, your not for profit, your service provider, in a time when employers are loathed to so much as give employees the necessary tools and information to do their jobs. Experts say employers are looking for abilities difficult to outsource and people who can function without a lot of handholding, but the true translation of that is I want someone I can throw into an office, in front of a phone, onto an event floor, say go to work and never have to look at them again until I need something from them, which is totally unrealistic. We are increasingly becoming a culture of osmosis, expecting and assuming that if you’ve made it this far in life you’ve picked up phones skills, business etiquette, employment related resourcefulness, creativity and problem solving even with little or no work experience, even with only typical minimum wage job experience. Sadly this routinely happens during internships as well, and it appears to be a problem exported to Westernized nations; a man in Singapore who, as part of his job dealt with interns, stated on a popular social networking site forum, discussing this topic he found it striking how important the above list of skills were, adding to it people skills. Included in his comments were cases where interns were not invited back for a lack of those skills, rudeness, what he called surprisingly poor phone skills, getting stuck on practical things.

However what is both telling and similar to America is that this man too communicated his bosses had no idea what to do with interns, almost resenting them, and like in America, no one, particularly the man in charge of interns, thought they should teach them; they were simply left to muddle through and then asked not to return. No one thought to try and cultivate resourcefulness, creativity or problem solving in the work environment, no one thought to advise struggling interns, if for no other reason than not to inflict them on the rest of the business world, not to have to deal with them in some medial job making their day worse with the “poor” skills. While simultaneously never telling the interns what authority they have over a phone, how best to get the things they need from other office staff, how you, the boss, the supervisor want those practical issues handled, how you want those phones answered. In fact it was as if the interns in question were punished for asking questions rather than making mistakes for timidity and respect of where they were and the chance they were being given vs. arrogance; part of the Singaporean man’s analysis of the interns in his workplace included that some did not have any clue how to make people want to help them, yet in that kind of environment no one wants to help them, they are given “busy” work so that actual employees can do the real work.

And somehow teaching all these skills that have always been obtained on the job, should be obtained on the job has been pushed off on educators, parents, community organizers, mentors, everyone but the employers, incidentally without anyone bothering to inform the mentioned entities. Classrooms cannot provide all kinds of training; mock up’s and simulations are nothing close to a real on the job, intern experience. Career centers teach technology, computer software, trades, business plan fundamentals, but they don’t teach how to handle common work scenarios, common sticky situations people new to the working world find themselves in. If you find one that does information will be antiquated, out of date, wrong or useless. Plus business owners, hiring managers, job recruiters have put exactly zero thought into what will happen when word gets around this is “all” employers want, the fact that all colleges will become clerical colleges where you learn excellent phone skills, customer services skills, business etiquette and we end up in a society minus doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, photographers, videographers things we need to function, careers we also need to compete internationally.

Critics of both the higher education system and students themselves suggest a series of standardized tests presented in some sort of learning tree which would give employers a better idea what students have learned while obtaining their degree, disregarding where you went to school, how long it took you to receive your degree and age, all factors now in the employment race once you get one. The problem with this line of thinking is not only agreement on such standards, formats for tests, formats for the results of said test, transcript or rèsumè style, but as many colleges are finding out, students with brilliant test scores when asked to write, think, form opinions have difficulty. Moving away from the sometimes dubious multiple choice test can lead to issues as well; returning to our man from Singapore, who also tutored middle school kids, from time to time, in preparation for a big required test found some of the science and math questions so tricky he was stumped in his 30’s. Leaving an obvious question is the goal of schooling for students to learn and be able to demonstrate what they learned, likewise the goal of tests to ascertain what students have learned, or is it to make questions so complex PHD holders could not answer them? Another pitfall to written sorts of exams can be the answer is well thought out, well explained, rooted in fact, even innovative, yet is marked wrong or devalued because it doesn’t follow the norm.

Misconceptions are not just found amongst the business world, places in need of workers; they do exist within people and panels examining higher education, one saying that we, the we being society as a whole, want degrees to mean students have mastered the foundations of human knowledge literature, chemistry, physics, psychology, economics and so on; perhaps that was true in the 1970’s or 80’s but not now. Now the degree has come to symbolize you have the foundations of a specialty; a simple analogy would be the various types of law practiced or various branches of medicine only on a more general scale. Degrees mean you are now ready to begin the practical aspects of a social work based career or job, are qualified to assist with a companies marketing campaign, are familiar with the foundations of business and can now take a job creating proposals, producing reports, know the basics of information technology, information systems, depending on what degree you earned. A meaning known to professors, all college staff, disseminated to students and something either unnoticed or forgotten by employers.

At the same time if we want a system not based on the prestige of school, how much you paid to attend, what important people you know, then we have to have an employment system based on the same. Too much of getting hired today has to do with who you know not what you know, who you are connected with not what skills you bring to the table. Mangers many times won’t even consider hiring someone that might be remotely smarter than they are. Mangers are often mini dictators, drunk on their own power, creating a tyrannical workplace because they knew who to rub elbows with, how to play the system, not because they had leadership skills or even a basic understanding of the goings on in whatever company. Employers could learn a lot more about job candidates simply by asking the right questions, focusing on the right things; instead of focusing on condition of teeth, walking gate and psychological analysis of handwriting or facial expression, asking what animal the candidate thinks they are, zero in on what you need such as organization skills, ability to maintain confidentiality. Ask scenario-based questions and evaluate the answers in concert with the level of experience on their rèsumè, what job duties they preformed to gage possible level of training needed.

If we have currently decided there is a need for all the degrees, if we have decided that we must keep up with other countries in terms of degree earning, then we have to open doors, we have to make sure middle and high school students know how much science and math, how much language skill is needed for what they might want to major in. We have to make the admissions process simpler no financial aid forms as complicated as tax returns, not requiring every document ever accumulated in theirs and their parents lives. Then we have to make it affordable; making sure that grants and scholarships cover basics like tuition and books, closing the gap for students who come from middle class homes where their income is X but there wasn’t enough for a college fund. And last but not least we have to change the mindset of the employment world, reacquaint them with what getting a college degree really means, the positives it offers and teach them how to then pick up the ball and train their employee the rest of the way- as it has been done decades before the current thinking took hold. That is how we make sure America stays on top on creativity, sustainability, innovation and employment for everyone, regardless of ranking within the country or internationally.