The Liberal Arts College as a Springboard to Opportunity

Each spring, I have the privilege of handing diplomas to more than 500 freshly minted college graduates as they walk across the stage and into their futures. This generation is optimistic, driven and public-spirited, which bodes well for America and the world.

Even so, across the country, many graduating seniors have neither a job nor a graduate school waiting and feel uncertain about the career paths they might pursue.

Why is that? In part, today's unwelcoming labor market for the young. In part, students' prudence about incurring graduate school debt unless they really know what they want to do. And in part, it's that today's students are navigating a much longer transition to the traditional markers of adulthood -- marriage, family, and stable employment -- than their parents and grandparents. As Jeffrey Arnett shows in his 2004 book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from Late Teens through the Twenties, many more people now experience their "turbulent 20s" as a decade of frequent job changes, continued personal exploration, ongoing financial reliance on family, and indeterminacy about life partners.

Great colleges will respond to the evolving needs of 20-something searchers and help them launch well into opportunity and growth. Liberal arts colleges are especially well positioned to do so, because our students feel personally known, valued, challenged and supported by the educators who work here. That's why Franklin & Marshall College has transformed the way we deliver what is traditionally called "career services" -- as part of our mission to provide a world-class liberal arts education that empowers students to pursue their goals and dreams for life.

We began last year by creating a new Office of Student and Post-Graduate Development (OSPGD) with two overarching goals: to help students make the most of college and thereby compete successfully for the post-graduate opportunities they seek, and to continue a developmental relationship with our graduates through their early 20s.

Recognizing that colleges and universities should support students' efforts to prepare for professional lives before the end of their senior year, we're giving students earlier chances to learn about careers and graduate school, without rushing them, to help them chart their own courses effectively. We're sponsoring regular workshops on themes like making summer internships count and managing one's digital identity. We're gathering top first- and second-year students to ensure they know early about the sustained academic excellence that will make them competitive for prestigious graduate programs and fellowships. And we now celebrate that sophomore rite of passage -- choosing a major -- with a Declaration Dinner that seats students with the faculty who will guide them and alumni who exemplify the myriad career possibilities of their choice.

We've also intensified support for juniors and seniors to help them land internships, learn what diverse employers are looking for, and network with alumni and parents who can help them connect to meaningful career explorations. For example, our new Council for Women brings together female students with alumnae of multiple generations. We're offering a popular two-year Life After College Success program that guides students through a reflective process to establish career goals and action steps. We're helping students secure highly sought-after opportunities such as Teach For America (F&M became one of their top 10 small college feeders last year). And, we're working in many ways to help students and young alumni put together the best possible applications for Ph.D., graduate and professional programs.

Perhaps most innovative, since September, we've provided regional programs and one-on-one support to our young alumni as they navigate the sometimes choppy waters of the work world and further refine their goals and pathways. To cite just one example, there's Evan Whiting '11, a history major who felt he had outgrown his first job as an employment coordinator at a nonprofit. Our staff helped him seek out a new role that more fully draws on his research skills -- as a conflict researcher at a leading international law firm -- and that will help him pursue his long-term goal of a legal career.

All this is part of F&M's expansive vision of education, which emphasizes cultivating the greatness in each learner, one by one, and fostering lifelong intellectual strength. Although some think we should assess colleges primarily by the average starting salaries of their graduates, liberal arts colleges know better. We're built to educate adults who can think, thrive, adapt and lead freely in today's dynamic world, and continue growing throughout their lives. And at the same time, we're now innovating to help students in the short-term make successful transitions from college to work and to enjoy meaningful professional growth in their early years after graduation.

It will be interesting to see if larger institutions, which don't know their students as well, can keep up with us.