Is A College Degree Really Worth it...Again?

College Graduates and the Time-Honored Bargain

For many years college students risked, struggled, and took on debt based upon a tacit bargain offered up by the world of work. Do the hard work and pay the high price of getting a bachelors degree and you will find an easier path of entry to a somewhat readily available, higher paying, and much more rewarding career than if you never went to college. In short, college was worth the effort.

Somewhere around 2008 the economy began to change and the old tacit deal was off the table. Suddenly, college graduates found themselves in a vast sea of degreed job seekers, who like themselves, were struggling to find work. Many considered themselves fortunate to take jobs that required only a high school diploma. Others found themselves drifting in a long span of unemployment or underemployment.


There were exceptions. The deal remained for many students in the STEM fields (the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and a few others. Students with degrees outside of this arena found themselves unemployed, underemployment, or working at low salaried entry level jobs that had little to do with their field of study.

But there were further exceptions. A category emerged during this time comprised of students who appeared to find their way to fulfilling well paid careers in spite of a BA degree completely outside the STEM area. How did they do that? We'll get back to that later.

The Job Market is Back!

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last months overall unemployment rate at 5.7%. The corresponding rate for workers with a bachelor's degree or higher came in at a healthy 2.8% - approaching full employment levels. According to a Bloomberg Business report, some financial analysts are concerned about an approaching shortfall of college educated workers. According to the same report, these same workers are receiving significantly better pay and receive more than twice the employer-funded post graduate training than those with high school diploma only.

... But is it Back for Everyone?

The job market report is welcome news and brings hope to many who have begun to lose hope over the past several years. But does this employment news bring equivalent hope for the cohort of job-seekers with ADHD who graduated at the height of the recession and continue to search for a meaningful career? Or current students who struggle to simply pass and graduate college and seem to have little direction or remaining resource to consider their career path.

The same concerns could soon face college-bound high school students - 40% of whom are statistically destined to fail the first semester of college. While official estimates are not available, it seems likely that present and near future college graduates with ADHD will experience an unemployment rate significantly higher than the near full-employment rate of 2.8% for the general population of college graduates.

Without adequate skills, tools, and guidance, many graduates with ADHD will continue to struggle to acquire and maintain a job. Recent studies indicate high school and college doesn't always provide requisite skills for this important life endeavor.

In January of this year, The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) published their study comparing student and employer perceptions of student career readiness.   The report indicated students' self-reported perceptions of career readiness were much higher than employers observations - especially in areas of key employer concern - like oral and written communication, critical thinking, team working skills, and creativity. 

How Do We Make College Worth It for Students With ADHD?

So how can students and graduates with ADHD benefit from the recovering job market? Remember the aforementioned category of grads who seemed to find their way into a fulfilling career despite their field of study? So how did they do that?

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to work with several of these successful graduates who have ADHD and noted many areas of commonality in the steps they took to success. Most had begun unsure of what they wanted to do after college, but had a deep investment in using the college experience from day one to determine their possibilities. These were the students who worked to form professional relationships with professors, networked with potential employers and persons involved in their prospective careers, found mentors, spent time during summer in internship opportunities and activities that broadened their scope of the world of work and helped them determine their direction and take steps into this journey.

In essence, these students demonstrated the key skills employers seek in the very undertaking of their career development activities – in the critical thinking, creativity, and communication skills they showcased as they worked to create relationships and opportunities that advanced them in the discovery and development of their career.

While these perspectives make a compelling case for proactively or remedially developing key skills as an effective means of securing a successful academic and employment future, the simplicity of this argument tempts us to overlook the innate struggle students with ADHD face attaining these key skills. Difficulty with social skills can undermine teamworking skills. Impulsivity challenges critical thinking. And difficulty with sustained attention and executive functioning challenges effective communication.  

Beneath the simplicity lies the reality that students with ADHD need special and accommodated methods for learning that enable them to overcome the functional limitations of ADHD and develop key employment skills.

The Lessons Learned ...

College needs to be a time where students enhance creativity, and develop critical thinking skills, team working abilities, and excellent oral and written communication skills. Career development needs to begin before the first day of college and needs to continue every day thereafter. Students need to develop networking and career investigative skills; accrue career-related work experiences, and encounter and be open to mentoring. These activities all require development of requisite heuristic life skills long before college begins.

Economic indicators and unemployment rates, like dreams, rise and fall. ADHD will likely continue to present obstacles to successful employment. However, inevitable uncertainty in the arc of career paths can only be mediated by the early development and utilization of these important skills.

Dr. Jon Thomas, LPC, is the founder and director of The ADHD College Success Guidance Program, which has recently added a career development component to the intensive 3-day experiential training and weekly follow up groups. The new component aims to assist students in the development of creative and critical thinking, team-working, and communication skills which they can build into specific tools for career exploration and development and workplace effectiveness.




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ADHD College Success Guidance Program

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