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5 things colleges should teach students before they graduate

March 26, 2021, 6:00 PM UTC
Commentary-What Colleges Should Teach Students
Universities should educate students not just in specific fields, but crucial professional and personal skills, writes Scott Agnoli.
Bryan Anselm—The Washington Post/Getty Images

Ideally, the typical college degree program should provide an individual with marketable skills to begin their career. However, years after starting their first job, many wish they had basic instruction in specific areas required to navigate life inside and outside their 9-to-5. 

I produce a weekly podcast that provides insights to prepare students for corporate life. Those discussions often touch on the topic of how colleges prepare students for the real world. 

My guests and I generally agree that there are segments of knowledge colleges should be required to teach all students. To explore this further, I tapped my contacts and asked this question: “What is something you wish you were required to learn in college?” 

Regardless of experience level, most answers revolved around five particular subjects, listed below in no specific order. 

Personal finance

The majority of graduates and professionals expressed a desire for education in all facets of personal finance. An illustrator I spoke with provided an insightful synopsis: “While there is information available about wealth management, most is superficial and does not provide real-world skills to manage real estate, credit, and retirement responsibly.” Credit management should be a 100-level class. Credit can be a valuable tool or a financial anchor, depending on your use of it. 

Tax education is equally important. A once-popular slogan went, “It’s not what you earn; it’s what you keep.” The sooner you understand what a 401(k) and individual retirement account (IRA) are, the sooner you can benefit from them. Leveraging a company’s 401(k) at age 22 instead of 30 can mean a million-dollar difference later on. Also, knowing the basics of negotiating a salary and budgeting can be life-altering.

Evaluating benefits 

This past January, I had a great discussion with a retired HR professional and parent of three children. When each child received their first job offer out of college, she reviewed and explained the benefits of the offer they had been given. One child, receiving multiple offers with similar starting salaries, deciphered the packages’ value and selected a winner with their mother’s help. 

But seldom do we have such a resource at our disposal. The benefits package in an offer letter may look impressive, but its actual value may not be clear until you understand each feature of the offering. Had they known more at the time, one journalist said they would have taken a different job for less starting pay because its benefits had better long-term value. 

Project management

Several advertising professionals have told me that an intro to project management would have been an asset in their college education. Successfully executing a project can be a stepping stone to a promotion. And having the knowledge and confidence to do so can protect you from failure. 

“The first class every student should have is Time Management 101,” said an industrial foreman. Understanding how to say no and learning how to delegate can streamline a project and reduce stress.

Relationship management

Relationship-building is an everyday affair. Having the skills to initiate and develop relationships can be critical to your personal growth. I have given seminars teaching students how to use LinkedIn to research companies and careers. Understanding how to leverage this typically underused tool early in their college career can arm a student with a network of valuable career resources post-graduation. A weekend workshop on digital networking during new student orientation could pay a lifetime of dividends. 

Mentors

Everyone tells you to get a mentor, but a former coworker said to me, “Hardly anyone talks about how to seek out and engage one.” 

How can you benefit from the experience of a good mentor or discard a bad one? A corporate trainer recounted that in all the training he does, not one required class includes discussions on engaging mentors. 

Change is needed

The need for practical life courses in college is long overdue. Knowing how to make educated choices at the beginning of a career could be exponentially beneficial. Conversely, five or six years into a job could be too late to recover from an uninformed decision.

My son leaves for his freshman year of college this fall. I plan to keep teaching him remotely throughout his time there. 

Since he’s attending one of the top universities in the country, I am confident that he will receive a quality education in his chosen area of study. I am not optimistic, though, that he will be successful in managing his professional and personal life—should I leave that part of his education up to his professors. 

Scott Agnoli, the founder of GetAGoodStart.com, provides career preparation for college students through his weekly podcast, blog, and seminars.