Can you hear the squeals? Entrenched advocates in higher ed have long insisted that liberal education should be pursued for its own sake, without the distractions of grubby occupational needs or other utilitarian concerns.

That, however, is not the conclusion of most people with experience as students. In 2014, Purdue University and Gallup teamed up to study tens of thousands of college alumni—tracking their happiness, their physical health, their income, whether they like what they do every day at work, their connections to friends and family, whether they live in a place they enjoy, and so forth. Then their undergraduate experiences were explored by the pollster. And connections were drawn between college years and well-being down the road.

After several more surveys, these queries became an annual report. In what is now called the Strada-Gallup Survey, hundreds of phone interviews are conducted daily with a representative sample of U.S. adults. The respondents have every type of educational background and subsequent experience.

One interesting finding is that people with a general bachelor’s degree are less satisfied with their education. Those with vocational or technical degrees, and those with graduate degrees, are more satisfied. Because, they say, those tracks left them better prepared for their careers, and gave their life a more controllable trajectory.

We know that students today want their degrees to be relevant to their employment and promotion path. Many fault colleges for doing this poorly. They say there is a big disconnect between what college trains them to do and what they actually take up after graduation. When Gallup asked working respondents to imagine that their job was eliminated tomorrow, then inquired where they would seek the education and training to garner another job, the most common answer was at an employer, not an institution of higher ed.

Evidence of this kind may be softening some of the resistance in academe to making usefulness a more explicit goal. Ted Mitchell is president of the American Council on Education, the major association for colleges and universities. He says there is no doubt that training for a career is what most students want, and urges observers to acknowledge that people “go to college to get jobs.” His organization is now in talks with Strada about a partnership that could help colleges assess their usefulness to students, and redesign their student experience accordingly.

Mitchell mentions two ways that colleges can respond to student hungers for better occupational preparation. First, all varieties of instruction should try to be relevant and applicable to daily life. “We need to give students hooks to hang their theoretical work on, to connect them with the real world.” And campuses should do a better job of providing “competencies like writing skills or computer coding.”

This is not to say that all colleges should become purely “vocational” or focused only on practical exigencies. There is certainly a place for the liberal arts and more abstruse forms of education. But those paths also need to be rooted in human experience. And they need to put real demands on students.

“There is a lot of wandering” at a typical college today, says Mitchell. “That means lost credits and lost time.” And bad habits. Strada’s surveys have found that students who thought their education was “academically rigorous” had better long-term outcomes. Unfortunately, only 42 percent of college attendees say they were challenged in academics at their educational institution.

In addition to adding rigor, engagement with actual life, and connections to employment, colleges should require their students to think methodically about their goals, talents, and place in society. “Anything institutions can do to get students to focus on a pathway would be helpful,” says Mitchell. At Purdue, freshmen are asked to do some career exploration before classes even start. They are queried about what they might do after college, and how strongly they feel about various goals. They are required to list alternatives that might interest them if their first idea doesn’t pan out.

The university then links all students to mentors who work through this information with them. “Mentoring is now an explicit requirement of faculty,” says senior vice provost for teaching and learning Frank Dooley. Instructors can’t be promoted or tenured without becoming an active mentor. And not just in some abstract sense. Mentors are required to understand the goals of their assigned students, and “get students thinking forward: What do you intend to do with your life. How can you make the most of your time on campus?”

Purdue is also responding to appetites for more useful education by emphasizing experiential learning. This includes internships, mixes of education and work, extracurricular and community activities, long-term projects that extend beyond one semester, and various forms of learning by doing. Donors could urge other universities to take similar paths.

In some places, the push to connect education and work goes much further. In 2018, for example, Strada Philanthropy gave $1 million to create a new “work campus” in Plano, Texas, connected to Paul Quinn College, a Dallas school founded in 1872 to educate freed slaves. Students at the new campus will be employed by corporate partners like Liberty Mutual and JPMorgan Chase at the same time they are studying and advancing toward degrees. “We’re no longer in the day where we’re training, and then praying people get jobs,” says Strada’s Daryl Graham. “Education and work go together.”

Making education more useful, effective, and attractive to participants will require more than just changing campus culture and university offerings. Some young people will step off the university carousel altogether. It has become a kind of mania in America today that every student must go to college—that something is broken, or someone should be disappointed, if a person doesn’t go right from high school to four-years-at-the-U.

Pushed by this expectation, many young people now flounder at college and leave with no degree but heavy debt (as you will see in the next entry in this collection of essays). Others eventually collect their sheepskin but find it did little to prepare them for what comes next. According to recent research, fully 40-50 percent of all college graduates age 22-27 are working in a job which doesn’t require a college degree. Even a full ten years after graduating, more than 20 percent of college completers are in jobs that don’t require a diploma.

Many of these individuals could be happier, less indebted, more quickly engaged in adult life, and more successful if they’d had easier access to paths other than the standard college track. But the flow of funds today—both philanthropic and public—overwhelmingly directs candidates to campus. 

Many philanthropically supported charter schools press for 100 percent of their graduates to go to college. Government funding for career and technical education has actually declined over the last generation, while funding for college more than doubled. Tens of billions of dollars in Pell grants and loan subsidies and tax breaks that are available to college students have no counterpart for people seeking career-connected education.

As implied by the old adage “Never let schooling interfere with your education,” there are many kinds of knowledge that can be acquired outside of classrooms. The Philanthropy Roundtable’s Jo Kwong suggests that funders should not allow post-high-school choices to become a stark “campus or nothing” duality.

“Given the tremendous depth and breadth of the education landscape,” she says, “there is a training path for everyone. But it might not be a four-year college for everyone, at least not right out of high school.” She suggests that donors press for more individually tailored options for different kinds of young people. And more linkages to the real-world needs of employers and our economy—because that is where people will find the highest compensation. “If we focused on ‘fit’ instead of prescribing a universal academic path for all, this would not be a problem,” Kwong argues.

Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute has recently suggested that “our education system’s designers and funders should pursue a different goal today: to re-balance the relative attractiveness of college and non-college pathways” so there are promising alternatives for all kinds of students and workers. He urges donors, companies, and government to mix classroom instruction, training, and subsidized employment to help individuals acquire skills that employers covet. Such programs will become a very “smart economic choice” for many young people.

One interesting trend today at some of America’s most inventive community colleges (fueled by savvy donors) is the creation of shorter programs than  conventional associates’ degrees. These can be completed in just one to three months by adults who are busy with existing job and family responsibilities, often during off-hours so the student is able to continue to bring home income from an existing job while studying. These offerings don’t produce college credits but rather portable occupational credentials in areas like nursing, computer programming, construction, lab work, machine tooling, etc. Recognized by employers around the country, these practical credentials help holders move up the job ladder, start new employment, or qualify for raises and promotions at their existing employer.

There is yet another way that even traditional college can be made more useful, and less prohibitive in costs and time demands. The period from start to completion can be shortened. There are several ways to do this.

A nonprofit called Modern States Education Alliance is dedicated to helping lower-income students pile up college credits before they step foot on campus. This increases their ability to complete a degree on time, or even ahead of time. The Modern States program “Freshman Year for Free” methodically guides high-school students through online courses plus A.P. and other competency tests. Participants pile up credits accepted at 2,000 colleges which can total enough to accelerate their college experience by a full year. Thanks to support from the 501c3, they do this without any tuition or textbook expense, potentially saving students thousands of dollars, increasing their odds of completing a degree, and accelerating their arrival into self-supporting work and adulthood.

Another approach is that taken by Purdue University—which has launched a major internal effort to help motivated students complete many majors in three years instead of four. Purdue’s College of Liberal Arts has fashioned three-year options for virtually every degree it grants, and in 2018 several other schools within Purdue also offered three-year tracks to enterprising students. Typically this involves taking classes in the summer, often online, plus one or two regular semesters with an extra course.

Already, more than 7 percent of all Purdue students now graduate in just three years, and the total is rising fast. The primary goal of shortening time in school is to help students save money and get an earlier start on life. Yet this useful innovation has also attracted attention, kudos, and larger numbers of excellent students to Purdue.

If every college worked to make their offerings more useful, there would obviously be large benefits to students. But, as at Purdue, there would also be benefits to the school. The original Purdue-Gallup report back in 2014 found that the odds of being “emotionally attached” to your alma mater are more than eight times higher if you feel the college prepared you and others well for life beyond the campus. That’s the kind of response that turns alumni into loyal donors.