Stop me if you've heard this one. What did the college graduate say to his friends? "I have a degree in liberal arts. Would you like fries with that?"
Even though the job market is improving, many recent graduates are struggling to find work -- and, equally pertinent, work in their field of study. This has led to more scrutiny of "outcomes" at colleges and universities, which are anxious to demonstrate in measurable ways that their graduates can succeed. What have they learned? Did they get jobs? How much do they earn?
These aren't questions just for individual families, but for a country that is backing gazillions each year in federal student loans. Is our investment paying off, or are more political science majors serving up soy lattes?
College-placement officers are all-too-aware of the scrutiny, and the smart ones are taking action. Job-focused programs on campus -- such as cooperative education and internships -- are growing and are even placing more American students overseas to work, in response to employer desires for globally competent workers.
At The College of Saint Rose in Albany, for example, internships are a requirement for graduation for that quintessential of liberal arts graduates, the English major. Saint Rose began this requirement in 2007. One undergraduate managed social media for a local credit union.
A Saint Rose official has said the school feels a deep responsibility to make sure students don't leave after graduation feeling as if they've been set adrift.
Internships have long been customary for business majors, but now "students in all majors are seeing the value in obtaining practical work experience in their field prior to graduation," said Scott N. Maynard, director of the career center and cooperative education at Mississippi State University. He spoke on behalf of the national Cooperative Education & Internship Association.
Students are looking to offset college expenses and set themselves apart in the job market, Maynard said. "Experience is one of the key factors employers look to."
Cooperative education, like internships, is expanding. Co-ops integrate work into the student's academic program, with work assignments ranging from a summer to 2.5 years. Unlike many internships, co-ops are paid and often lead to job offers after graduation. Co-ops were formerly the province of engineers, but business and industry co-op programs are flourishing.
Maynard said the real-world training can make for more engaged students who "contribute more to classroom discussion and usually make better grades."
All of this practicality is encouraging, but it would be a mistake to neglect more abstract qualities like critical thinking and the ability to deal with ambiguity. Andy Lockwood, who runs Lockwood College Consulting in Glen Head, says employers want graduates who make eye contact, articulate ideas and can put down a cellphone.
"A lot of that is nonacademic," Lockwood said. "It's unfair to put the entire burden for skill development on colleges. Kids need to be proactive, speak in class, talk to professors, learn communication skills."
I agree. As much as society might benefit from colleges taking an unformed high school graduate and moving her along a conveyor belt into the world of work -- with the help of internships and co-ops -- that's not realistic. Ultimately, students have to determine to make opportunities for themselves. Or grab a spatula and start flipping.