According to poet T.S. Eliot, April is the cruelest month. And this indeed is so for many recent university graduates, and some not so recent. By April many of the students who completed studies in 2013 have had nearly a year of experience in the labour market. Sadly, too many had their dreams of landing a full-time job related to their studies shattered. Some have found no employment at all. Most are underemployed in precarious jobs. A few are in danger of having to declare bankruptcy before even starting full-time employment.
By now, many recent graduates realize that choices made several years earlier have come to haunt them. Low grades earned because of decisions to hold two-part time jobs to minimize student loans, or so they could purchase the latest consumer products, become insurmountable barriers to a successful transition from school to work.
Faced with dismal employment prospects, and the possibility of defaulting on loan payments, often recent graduates consider returning to school. However, for many the door to further education is barred.
Professional programs, such as law and business, demand a demonstrated record of undergraduate achievement. Grades of B+ or A are required for entrance to most professional schools, in addition to high scores on admissions tests. Master’s programs in the social science and humanities do not require stellar grades, but they reject students with a middling C.
It is no secret that is difficult to fail an undergraduate course in university. A modicum of effort will ensure a passing grade, like a D or C. Professors see themselves as coaches helping students to make progress, rather than general managers who fire poor performers.
But too many students are under the impression that having a BA is the key that will open doors to employment and further studies. This impression, fostered by parents and universities, evaporates in the months after convocation when employers and graduate programs show no interest in recent graduates who have earned marginal or even average grades. Employers and graduate programs rightly view As and Bs on transcripts as evidence of commitment, keen understanding, and creativity. The Cs and Ds are interpreted as putting in time, lack of originality, and poor communication skills.
The consequences of poor and often uninformed decisions made by students in their late teens and early 20s are long lasting. Selecting an unsuitable program of study (sometimes because of parental pressure), minimizing student debt by maximizing employment income, and believing that merely graduating guarantees success are choices that cannot be overturned.
The dilemma for the large number of graduates with average grades is to demonstrate that indeed they have the potential and passion to hone their skills and can make valuable contributions at a workplace or in a classroom; in other words, they need to convince employers and graduate programs that they have become more serious, focused and mature since graduation. But it is tough for these grads to argue that an academic transcript is an ancient document that divulges little about the present or future.
Many employers expect young workers to remain with an organization for only a few years, and see little benefit in providing on-the-job training. At the same time, admission to graduate programs is more competitive than ever because many Canadians do realize that a BA is not a sufficient credential for success in the workplace.
To avoid a lost generation of Canadians – along with the waste of human capital and tax monies – governments, universities and employers must turn their attention to the plight recent graduates.
- Governments need to review student assistance programs, especially for the most disadvantaged students and reform loan repayment schedules. Providing financial incentives as part of student loans for strong academic performance, and placing strict limits on the amount of employment income that students receiving loans may earn, will encourage young people to focus on their studies.
- Universities need to more intensively counsel students, better identify students at risk of making poor decisions, and provide “second-chance” programs of study.
- Employers must be more meticulous and shrewder in their hiring processes, as well as invest in the training and mentoring of young workers.
These measures, which entail little cost and should be best practices, will provide young Canadians with the guidance about priorities that they require, and desire.
Thomas Klassen is a professor of political science at York University.