By Dr. James Thrasher
College students have racked up $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. These students take on staggering debt and blindly head off to college, hoping for the best. For many college students, this is a formula for disaster. These leaders of tomorrow have been abandoned to fend for themselves. They are told, “You’ll figure it out.” Really? Students going off to college are receiving little or no counseling on this significant – possibly life-changing – financial encumbrance, which is compounded by virtually no investment in their career development: knowing what to major in based on their unique design. Students are grossly uninformed financially and unprepared to think critically about who they are, which is crucial to knowing which career paths to pursue that “fit.” This is a lethal combination which potentially cancels out academic and life success.
The statistics are staggering of how many lives are devastated each year by this blindness. Students are dropping out after a year or two of study with little to show for it, but now are saddled with huge, life-altering debt. Some finish college but are unable to pursue the career that they are passionate about because the salary in that field will not suffice considering their monthly $400 to $500 loan payment. Many are defaulting on these massive student loans, and the debt collectors are going after the assets and pensions of co-signing family members. The impact of loan defaulting is having a ripple effect not just on the next generation of employees, mom and dads, home buyers, and community members, but also on the whole nation, which potentially faces a national financial catastrophe. Dr. Barmak Nassirian, from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, stated that this looming debt crisis – which I believe is compounded by a lack of clear career direction for college students – is “going to be very consequential for the future of our country.” Shouldn’t we be informing, investing in, caring for, and protecting our young men and women? We are not. This is a national disgrace.
In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos shared her thoughts on student-loan debts and college students’ career preparation. She spoke of her sincere concern regarding mounting student debt and its implications. A number of initiatives were cited as remedies for this problem, such as reforming the Federal Student Loan Aid Platform, increasing available information about college program costs and earning potential by major, and reviewing accreditation in higher education. These changes by the Department of Education will not significantly impact this national crisis. These actions are certainly well intended, but they will not solve the problem.
Then she landed on the real issue! DeVos made the case for encouraging young people much earlier in life to explore “what they are wired up to do” vocationally. She said that “students need to think about their innate aptitudes and not wait until they graduate.” She also said that “communities have to take responsibility for this in a major way.” The seemingly illusive concept that DeVos is trying to identify is calling. Vocational calling is the key to unlocking a valid approach to attacking this national failure. It is a bold statement to make, but helping students to establish a firm understanding of their calling and design will make a college education pay off and help solve the student-debt issue.
DeVos has identified the core problem but has not provided a viable solution. Saying it is a community’s responsibility to increase career development earlier in a student’s life is true, but the specifics are lacking. As the director of a nationally ranked career-services program for over 20 years, I have advised thousands of college students. Most students put on a good face, but truth be known, most of them have no idea about their design, vocational calling, and what that all means for choosing a major and a career. So I affirm DeVos’ appraisal.
Each person has been uniquely crafted – or as DeVos said, “wired” – to find meaning, purpose, and satisfaction in the world of work and career. This “fit” will be discovered by investing time into identifying that uniqueness and then connecting it to the world of work. The facilitation of a student’s self-knowledge and assessment is the starting point for this process. This is the framework for designing a blueprint of the individual’s calling DNA. Knowing one’s design, transferable skills, aptitude, abilities, interests, personality, and characteristics will lay the foundation for solid career development. This must start in the home.
Parents need to take the lead in encouraging self-assessment– the cornerstone of good career development– which will help identify all these unique and wonderful attributes of a son or daughter. Parents, who know their children better than anyone, can help them reflect on who they are and what that potentially means for them with college major and career interests. Other influencers – such as teachers, coaches and youth pastors– can also contribute to this awareness of gifting.
Guidance counseling also must be in place as this crucial process continues. For private school, homeschooling, and Christian schools, this counseling must be sought out and secured. Within the public system, we must get back to guidance counselors having the primary role of personally mentoring and guiding students in self-awareness and career exploration. This is not happening currently. Having talked with countless guidance professionals over the years, staffs have been cut, and they are now responsible for school duties that have nothing to do with the core objectives of their profession.
Finally, college career-services offices have to do their job. Over 60% of college students have never stepped into their career-services office or have only visited once or twice. Something is terribly wrong with that picture. Many career offices are not effectively meeting the needs of their students. This must change.
The understanding of calling revolutionizes career development. Students must be personally assisted in helping to confirm a major and to realize and pursue their own distinguishing and individual callings. Then they need to be directed and led in connecting who they are to their “fit” in the marketplace. This is the charge for a career-services professional. The role of these three indispensable components of the career-development process cannot be understated.
If students are actively engaged and invested in the right philosophy and resources regarding calling and career development, the student loan and default rates will be significantly reduced, college retention and graduation rates will increase, and students will have a much better opportunity for career and life success.
—Dr. Jim Thrasher is the Senior Fellow of Grove City College’s career services office and the coordinator of the Institute for Faith & Freedom’s working group on calling.