If you wish to squander your children’s potential and incinerate any appeal they might hold for employers, America is chock-full of colleges and universities anxious to harness their vast infrastructures to help make them unemployable. These services, refined over many decades, won’t come cheap. But America’s student-loan complex will happily offer tuition money by the wheelbarrow. Decades hence, when you tire of progeny residing in your attic, politicians will squeal at the opportunity to foist their student loan debts onto other Americans who made better decisions.
Like students, fish congregate in schools. Perhaps that is why higher education in America reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s pseudo-didactic poem in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865):
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
How cheerfully he seems to grin
How neatly spreads his claws
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
Mind you, not all colleges and universities—or programs within those institutions—fit this description. And regardless of where and what said progeny intend to study, you and your children have the capacity to make higher education a worthwhile experience. But in general, the task of making college worthwhile cannot be entrusted to colleges. I’ve spent much of my adult life in and around universities and always took great pleasure in helping students to navigate employment markets. Here are five bits of advice from my experience.
Check under the hood before shelling out the money.
Make sure your children understand that their merits are not obvious.
Master at least two things.
Begin the job search no later than the beginning of freshman year.
Reinvent yourself when necessary.
I’ll elaborate below on all five points.
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 Due Diligence and Reconnaissance
Some schools do it right. Work hard to find one for your kid. And understand that the last place you will learn such things is in the mechanistic rating guides produced by outfits like U.S. News & World Report.
From 2001 to 2007, I was privileged to teach in a college that did it right. During those years, I was a visiting professor at the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond (in Richmond, Virginia). To this day, I am awed by the care, effort, and competence the Robins School put into assuring that its students were highly competitive upon graduation. One year, I had an opportunity to stress this point with a student who was being pushed in a different direction.
He was one of my very brightest freshmen and, one day, visited my office to ask whether I would write a him letter of recommendation. I said “of course,” and asked why he needed it. He said a neighbor back in New England was a bigwig in a huge financial firm and had told him that to be viable, he needed to transfer to a higher-profile, “name-brand” business school. The kind that tops the U.S. News rankings. I said:
Here’s the deal. I’ll write the best letter anyone has ever written about you. But only if you do two things. First, I want you to knock on the office door of one of my colleagues, Professor Jerry Stevens. He works with students on career planning. Tell him you’re a freshman and that you want to know exactly how the school will help you to get a good job. Importantly—don’t write him in advance. Just bang on his door unannounced.
Then, when you visit the “name-brand” business schools, ask them the same question.
He agreed to do as I said. A few weeks later, after touring his prospective schools, he showed up at my office, pointed at the floor, and said, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying here.” I smiled, invited him to have a seat, and asked him what happened.
He said that when he barged into my colleague’s office unannounced, Jerry put his work aside and said, “Come on in.” Then he gave my student a half-hour explanation of how the professors would work with him for four years on learning to write a résumé, preparing for an interview, finding internships, and so forth. In his senior year, professors would take him and other students as a group to visit the New York financial markets. There, they would introduce them to Richmond graduates working around Wall Street, and they would shadow these graduates for a few days. Later, recruiters from the big firms would come to campus, and the school would assist the students in optimizing their searches.
“And what did the other universities tell you?” I asked. He smiled and shook his head. He said they seemed perplexed by the very question. Using a stereotypical Hollywood patrician cadence, he said they told him, “Weeeee are not an employment agency. Weeeee are a university. We will teach you the necessary technical skills for a financial career. Finding employment is your job, not ours.”
 The importance of introspection and humility
While working at Chase Manhattan Bank’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan, I volunteered to serve as a career advisor for students at and graduates of my undergraduate alma mater—the University of Virginia. One day, a bright, ambitious student came to my office. He said he wanted to work in financial markets and wondered whether I had any advice for him. He showed me his very, very, very short résumé, which looked like every other 21-year-old’s very, very, very short résumé.
I said, “First question. Do you or your parents know personally any people who are reasonably high up in the financial world—someone you could use for introductions and recommendations?” His face suddenly turned sullen and disdainful. “Yes,” he said, “But that’s not how I want to get a job. I want to get it on my own merits.” I explained that personal acquaintances were a recent graduate’s greatest assets. He grew adamant that he did not wish to use personal connections to secure employment. Again, he wanted to get a job “on his own merits.”
I got a bit irritated, held up his résumé and said, “I hate to tell you, but you don’t have a whole lot of merits. You have a short résumé that tells me that you’re reasonably bright—but there are a million other kids who have the same résumé or better. An employer who hires you takes on a huge financial risk. This résumé alone isn’t enough to warrant that risk. The most valuable assets you have are references from people who think highly of you and who know something about the industry in which you wish to work. In providing a recommendation, that person puts his or her reputation on the line for you—and that matters to a prospective employer. So let me ask you once again—do you or your parents know anyone working in the financial markets?”
The student then told me that, in fact, his father was managing director for a major financial firm—overseeing a region encompassing half-a-dozen states. I said, incredulously, “Did you ask your dad to make some introductions?” He said, “He offered to, but that’s not how I want to get a job.” I told him that hardly anyone will ever care how he got his job and that those do don’t matter. What matters is what he does with the job once he gets it. He said that just wasn’t what he wanted, and he went on his way.
 The virtues of polymaths
I regularly advised students to make sure that they were competent in at least two subjects. It’s not wise to become a dilettante, with a smattering of knowledge in a lot of things and no depth in any. But there is value in having expertise in more than one field. I was hired at Chase Manhattan because I knew economics (degree from Columbia), was able to write (former newspaper reporter), spoke French (conversant, but not fluent), and had some knowledge of Sub-Saharan Africa (personal interest). There were lots of economists, lots of writers, lots of French-speakers, and lots of Africanists—but not many people who had all four.
I recall a student at Richmond who was double-majoring in business and studio art. For many, that combination was a head-scratcher. But to me, it seemed an ideal combination for someone seeking a managerial position in the arts—or someone who was, if nothing else, interesting. I often suggested that students consider double-majoring in some combination like that—a combo that would raise eyebrows.
 Starting early
Here’s a long-term job-hunting plan I devised for students back in the mid-1980s. Some have followed suit, and those who have generally reported good results.
Early in your college career, make a list of 5 to 10 people doing jobs that sound like jobs you might like to do in the future. Don’t limit yourself. If you think it would interesting to be chairman of Google, then put the chairman of Google on your list. Don’t limit yourself to careers you think are your likeliest choices. Include different kinds of jobs in different kinds of industries. To repeat, choose jobs you think might be interesting.
Compose a relatively brief letter (i.e., no more than one page) to each person on your list. Explain that you’re just a freshman or sophomore and are not looking for a job—only for information and advice. Without being obsequious, tell the person you admire what he or she does and that you have some interest in a similar career path. Include a general description of the questions you would like to ask in person: What things do I need to do while in college to maximize my chances of breaking into the field? How does the field differ from popular perceptions? What are the risks and opportunities of pursuing such a career path?
At the end of each letter, tell the recipient you’d like very much to take a half-hour of his or her time. If you can afford to do so, offer to take them to lunch. They probably won’t let you pay, but you never know. Carefully proof your letters. I suggest reading them each aloud to yourself or to someone else. Once this is done, send the letters by email and by surface mail, telling the recipient in each that you’re sending it by both modes.
If you hear back from a recipient, great. If not, try contacting the person again a few weeks later. If that still doesn’t work, either move on to someone else or, if you’re really tenacious, try once more. (Or find someone willing to tell the person, “You need to meet this kid.”) Some people like to see persistence. (Warning: Some don’t.) While you’re awaiting responses, come up with a few backup individuals.
Judging from my previous advisees’ experiences, you’ll get some positive responses. You may even find yourself having lunch with a really highly placed individual or someone close to that person. A literate, well-crafted letter from someone who’s not looking for anything but advice will intrigue some recipients. Arrange a meeting and, if it works out that way, have lunch with the person or meet wherever they like. Plan your questions carefully. Be businesslike, organized, and calm in your discussion. Take good notes on the advice you receive. You’ll want to ask some or all of the following:
What courses will you need to take in college?
What sort of internships will be helpful?
Will grad school be necessary?
What other experiences would be helpful to get on your résumé?
What are the good and bad points of the job? Exactly what does one do during working hours (as opposed to what outsiders THINK the person does?
What sort of person likes this type of work, and what sort of person doesn’t?
What are the risks and opportunities of pursuing this career path?
What are the prospects of landing a job when you’re out of college?
How can you learn more about whether you would like the job or not?
After your meetings, send brief, warm thank-you notes, again by email and by surface mail. (Some people respond better to one or the other, which is why I suggest both.) Then, start following the advice each person gave you. If one recommended a course in accounting, take it. If another suggested an internship, find one. If one recommended that you learn golf, hit the links. For the rest of your college years, send each person a brief letter (surface mail and email) approximately every four to six months. In the letters, tell them which pieces of their advice you have followed since the last letter. Tell them how valuable the advice was, and thank them once again for the suggestions. Be brief, courteous, and businesslike.
By the time you graduate college, several well-placed people will have received a series of brief letters from you on a regular basis over several years. They will know your name. Some will be impressed by how organized you were in maintaining correspondence and in taking their advice. You are now in a position to say something like this: “You may recall that we had lunch three years ago and you offered me an extensive list of suggestions. In the years since, I followed every single suggestion you made. I’m more interested than ever in this career path. I am going onto the job market as my graduation approaches. I was wondering whether we might discuss the possibility of my joining your firm.”
I believe you’ll have an advantage over your competitors in getting through the door of this firm.
 Be prepared to change
Finally, at every stage of your studies and of your career, be prepared to change directions. As an undergraduate, I was an English literature major who wanted to write novels. I also knew a lot about politics. When it occurred to me that I was not going to be a novelist, I put those two attributes together and became a small-town newspaper reporter. Ultimately, I realized that that job was not going to satisfy me in the long-run, so, at age 25, I decided to become an economist.
I had never taken an economics or business course, and I had taken very little math (though I always liked math). Eventually, I pursued my PhD in economics. In my mid-40s, I decided to specialize in healthcare and got a master’s in that field. At age 69, I’m still reinventing myself. I expect that I’ll be doing so for the duration.
My mother spent most of her life as a business owner. At 80, retired, and widowed for four years, she grew bored and decided she needed more money. She filled out the first job application form of her lifetime (historical tour guide), got the job, and worked there until she retired once again at 91.
Best of luck.
Robert F. Graboyes is president of RFG Counterpoint, LLC in Alexandria, Virginia. An economist, journalist, and musician, he holds five degrees, including a PhD in economics from Columbia University. An award-winning professor, in 2014, he received the Reason Foundation’s Bastiat Prize for Journalism. His music compositions are at YouTube.com/@RFGraboyes/videos.
I had the luxury of being in your course as a MSHA student. I admired your mind and thought process. It helped me accept my diverse way of thinking. I loved reading your article this morning and hope to stay in touch.
VCU MSHA class of 2013.
Love this one. So glad I attended a small liberal arts college even though I could have gone Ivy League. I changed my major 2 x, and almost ended up with a triple major. I got my first job through college contacts - the same day I received a rejection from HR, I received an interview offer from the department I was applying to.
Really good advice Bob and I totally agree. I know young people who were rail-roaded from day 1 at very good to excellent universities and one is working at Home Depot.