Set to graduate and armed with nothing, a group of Florida Gulf Coast University seniors discussed how they didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives.
Last December in her senior seminar class, Devon Bistarkey, a communications major with a focus in public relations, readied a presentation about Web design skills she needed but never learned.
She wasn’t alone.
An aspiring sociologist who didn’t know his field of study requires graduate school sat next to her. Across the room, another student pondered a major move from psychology to education.
FGCU offers senior seminar as a capstone class for seniors meant to integrate four years worth of knowledge and send students off into the work world.
In the class, Bistarkey said students gave presentations about what they learned and where they were going. The majority of students either changed majors or didn’t know if their major could land them a job.
“It felt great seeing how lost everyone else was,” Bistarkey said. “I can’t say I knew what I was getting myself into.”
And according to the Obama Administration, neither do most students.
Faced with trends that show students spend more on college than ever and get less out of it, the Obama Administration blames the educators, as it pressures postsecondary schools to be more transparent about the cost of education and the success of graduates.
Students with loans graduate with an average of $25,000 in debt and total borrowing for an undergraduate degrees jumped from $50 billion in 2000-01 to $112 billion in 2010-11, according to the College Board. These statistics are compounded by the fact that college graduates are earning less. Real earnings of male college graduates with only a bachelor’s degree are down 19 percent since 2000, while earnings for females of the same circumstance are down 16 percent since 2003, according to Michael Mandel, chief economic strategist at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
But FGCU says they have a different story and results.
FGCU Provost Ron Toll points to a wide range of available information about costs and employment and says the numbers, free for anyone with a computer and Internet service, back him up.
According to the State University System (SUS) of Florida, FGCU’s tuition of $5,532.60 for two semesters (30 credit hours) is slightly above the system average of $5,531, and bachelor graduates had the second best rate of employment at 68 percent (out of 1,439 who graduated) of the 11 SUS schools.
Toll takes pride in the data, even if students don’t know it exists.
“Everything is out there,” Toll said. “We try to present the real data and we’re very proud of that data. We want to do more and more with it. We want students to be informed shoppers and understand the valued added of having an FGCU degree. The data indicates it’s a very valuable degree that stands up in the competitive marketplace.”
Bistarkey hasn’t seen the numbers and says she wouldn’t know where to find it.
With three college-aged daughters, Bistarkey’s parents are not paying for her college tuition or expenses.
She started at FGCU in 2007 as a senior in high school and attended on-and-off for three years before graduating last December. Bistarkey took out $7,000 worth of loans, waited tables at Ruby Tuesday, commuted 330 miles a week and didn’t know what she was getting into five years ago.
“FGCU does a better job at being reachable because it was bad at the beginning,” Bistarkey said. “No one sat me down and showed me the numbers. No one asks ‘what do you want to be?’ or says ‘this program will give you this.’ No ones talks about what a $7,000 loan actually means.”
After graduation, Bistarkey went home to Port Charlotte and sent out five resumes a day for a month and heard nothing. Overwhelmed, she packed up and moved to New Jersey, where she feels fortunate to be in the interview process for a sales position at a health and wellness center.
Bistarkey says the broad focus of the FGCU public relations track left her unequipped with required technical skills like using publishing and design programs and site development.
When she tried to acquire those tools through electives, Bistarkey said she was met with walls.
“I don’t think I was adequately prepared,” she said. “I tried to take a web design class but I didn’t have the prerequisite for it (Intro to Computers) because it’s outside my major. ”
Toll says events for incoming freshmen such the Eagle Expo, which is an open house where individual departments and programs — including Financial Aid — set up tables and offer information about job prospects, exist to keep students informed.
At Eagle Expo and at freshmen orientation sessions, Career Development Services, an outlet that helps students develop and implement career, education and employment decisions, also gives presentations.
Located on first floor of the Cohen Center, Career Services also hosts etiquette dinners, gives class presentations to seniors, and maintains an interactive website with resume and interview tips.
Reid Lennertz, FGCU’s director of Career Services, said he administers a survey at every commencement that tracks if students interact with the various outlets in some form.
Last semester, according to Lennertz, 70 percent said they did.
“It’s hard to define us because we interact with students in so many ways,” Lennertz said. “We’re very visible. Even though students might not walk through our doors, chances are they’ve been exposed to something and they might not even realize they’re interacting.”
Lennertz said the current job market faces shortages in rigorous fields such as science. But Lennertz avoids matching a student’s career choice with the market, instead digging for a person’s values and interests.
“Just because there are shortages somewhere doesn’t mean the job is appropriate for a student,” he said. “The job market changes. Choosing a career based on personal characteristics is a better decision making model rather then going for where there’s high employment rates. I never talk a student out of their choice.”
Jon Schriver, an FGCU senior marketing major set to graduate in April, wishes somebody talked him out of his career path — and his decision to take out a $10,000 loan.
Schriver describes sitting in classes like services marketing, where he memorizing text books to pass tests and wished he could make real marketing campaigns for Nike.
Too scared to look for jobs, Schriver plots how he will pay back his loans.
“I’m nervous,” he said. “I don’t know who to talk to about loans. I feel kind of prepared but I can’t really apply much of what I’ve done. I don’t want a crappy dead end job.”
While Bistarkey and Schriver fear for their futures, Toll says market demand oscillates and skills evolve.
He describes a FGCU curriculum that breaks through any changes and stands on its own.
“We don’t want to consider our educational experience as specifically for job acquisition,” Toll said. “We want to produce well-educated members of society. We want reflective decision-makers, students who can work in teams and analyze text so they can go into the job market today and compete in the market the day after that.”
Some students wish they knew.
The Associated Press contributed to this story