Getting the Most from Your Bachelor’s Degree in an Uncertain Climate

With the economic forecast reading cloudy with a growing chance of unemployment, it can be a frustrating time for those pursuing a bachelor’s degree. A 2012 unemployment report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics has left many students concerned about life after graduation. As universities and colleges tighten their budgets to account for decreased state funding, each graduating class finds itself competing with previous graduates for the exact same jobs. These budget cuts and the lackluster job market are encouraging students to re-evaluate the best way to spend their time in college to maximize their ability to impress employers after graduation, including completing double majors, fulfilling degree requirements in shorter time, and seeking financial aid.

The Art of the Double Major

In addition to stellar grades and impressive extracurriculars, students in four year schools are beginning to entertain the idea of double majoring sooner rather than later.  “Serious concentration in a secondary area can be extremely marketable, and employers are looking for that,” says Kathy Sims, director of the UCLA Career Center. “It really does seem to be a great value,” she says. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that two majors can indicate that you’re capable of solving real-world problems from multiple angles. “With double majors, students are saying, ‘I am interested in viewing the world through more than one discipline’s set of lenses,’” says Marlene McCauley, associate academic dean at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C.

Despite its advantages, double majors aren’t possible, or affordable, for everyone. In those scenarios, a minor in a related or unrelated field can be just as impressive to potential employers. Majors in the sciences are often well supplemented with a minor in communications or art-related fields. Similarly, many majors in the College of Arts and Sciences are far more marketable when accompanied by a minor in a business or math related field.

The Three-Year Bachelor’s Degree

Another way students are making themselves more competitive in the job market is by completing a bachelor’s degree in three years instead of four. USAToday states that three years is the average for undergraduate degrees in Europe, and a handful of U.S. colleges offer variations of a three-year program, including Judson College in Alabama, Manchester College in Indiana, and Seattle University. While there are acceptable exceptions, including illness or study abroad programs, employers generally do not like to see a graduate who took much longer than four or five years to complete their bachelor’s degree.  To really stand out in a sea of new graduates, students are recognizing not only the importance of finishing on time, but of finishing early. Like double majoring, finishing early is something that needs to be planned for and not decided upon two years into the degree. A three-year degree “would be attractive to someone who knows right now what they want to do with the rest of their lives,” says Lincoln Morris, Upper Iowa’s vice president for enrollment management. “Most students don’t have it all figured out right now, and that’s fine.” By planning ahead, however, students can place themselves above the curve and present themselves as hard-working and forward thinking.

Monetary Support for Bachelor’s Programs

Finally, students who want the most from their bachelor degree programs are looking towards financial aid options. It is extremely important how students spend their time during their undergraduate program; working a minimum wage job to help pay for college is impressive, but working at a related internship, double majoring, and finishing early allows the student to pursue other interests that are in line with their aspirations. To help students have the time to shape their skill sets for a job upon graduation, colleges and universities are offering new financial aid packages in addition to the federal aid programs such as the Pell Grant program. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Pell Grant Program provides “need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain postbaccalaureate students to promote access to postsecondary education.” In a 2009 interview with NPR, Tally Hart, former head of financial aid at Ohio State University, said that changes in federal grants and loans will “stabilize and increase Pell Grants for students, addressing the number one concern about attending college.” As reported by CNN, 8 million low-income students qualified for up to $5,500 for annual grants in 2011. With less emphasis on the financial portion of bachelor’s degrees, students are able to focus on how to enhance and build their resume while they can still take advantage of college resources.

Finding the “Extra”

Ultimately, the responsibility lies on the student to discover how to make the most out of their undergraduate experience. Often times, making the most of one’s undergraduate experience means making developing the skills needed to find a rewarding job upon graduation.  The New York Times recently emphasized the importance of sticking out; in todays’ world, “average” just won’t cut it anymore.  As author Thomas Friedman reminds readers, “everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment” and quiet often the first place for many to find that unique contribution is during undergraduate studies.