The notion of the lost, soul searching college student isn't just an anachronism - it's an albatross.
Today's labor market is too global, too competitive for good jobs, and far too demanding for a college student to meander through a host of different potential majors, choose something for the wrong reasons, and then try to find a job without having actually learned anything useful. To be clear, useful can mean studying fields that are highly employable; it can also mean knowing what you love and having a way to spend your life doing it as a profession.
Companies use intense forms of data analytics and targeting to figure out exactly what consumers might want in each exact moment and situation, just think about the choices you're given on Amazon every time you buy something. Political campaigns do the same to figure out who will vote and what they care about. Colleges are even starting to use more precise targeting to figure out what students to recruit.
So why not use the same forms of analytics, targeting and data to help college students make far better decisions about what to study and how to structure their lives?
It's hard to expect an 18 or 19-year old to know themselves well enough to make smart decisions about anything, let alone what they'd want out of a job or profession ten or twenty years in the future. Nor is it necessary to try to convince everyone that they should study the handful of professions that are rapidly hiring and growing.
It may just be that a probing, detailed, thoughtful analysis can help students figure out what they really enjoy, what they're good at, what inherent abilities they have (you may be very analytical or intuitive, you may like dealing with people or you may prefer working alone, you may like to sell or you may like to execute and so on), what types of jobs that could mean and what course of study would most help them get there.
The data analytics to figure this all out already exist, even if not in the form I just described above. But even if it did exist, it'd be only useful if colleges actually used it.
A few years ago, the U.S. Department of Education authorized a rule called Gainful Employment that put certain processes in place for for-profit colleges that help determine whether their students should be able to access federal student loans. If the school is particularly bad at training students for actual jobs or placing them in those jobs, the government doesn't want them easily setting their students up with federal loans that will be hard to repay.
Why not mandate a version of this for all colleges?
What if we required all colleges to administer real, detailed tests to help determine what their students should study (based on their goals and inherent skills and interests) and then tailor federal grants and aid to colleges based on their adherence to the process and the data?
We're already using data to improve and guide every aspect of our lives - why wouldn't we use it for the most formative period most of us ever face?
No matter how many trade deals Trump rips up, no matter how many Fords or Carriers he persuades to keep operating in the U.S., no matter how much we restrict immigration, at the end of the day, our success as a nation will ultimately depend on the type of workforce we produce.
Giving students better data and insight to make good choices won't, in and of itself, produce a better workforce. But it would make their time in college more productive and efficient - and that can only help.