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The Millennial Journey: How to Mitigate Buyer’s Remorse in Education

By Gorick Ng, MBA Student, Harvard Business School

According to a recent Gallup poll, 51% of U.S. adults would change at least one of their education decisions (degree, institution, and/or field of study) if they had a chance to re-do their post-secondary degrees.[1] With 44 million Americans[2] each sitting on an average of $37,172 in student loans,[3] we should expect less buyer’s remorse, no?

We should. And we can.

Although a number of socioeconomic and sociocultural factors underpin the current higher ed crisis, I’d like to highlight an often overlooked element: our lack of foresight as students.

Our “conveyor belt” education system has always fed us the next step: do well in kindergarten and first grade will be waiting. Do well in middle school and high school will be there. Do well in high school and college becomes the next step.

Along the way, the default strategy is often to look to John on our left and choose the same school, look to Jenny on our right and choose the same major, and look to our parents and take a similar path. In a constant attempt to keep our heads above water in the face of midterms, homework, essays, jobs, activities, peer pressure, and family obligations we feel there’s no time to reflect on what are doing, why we’re doing these things, and how this all shapes the person we aspire to become. Since this “conveyor belt” kept moving anyways, we were largely sheltered from the consequences of our actions – and inaction.

But what happens towards the end of this “conveyor belt”?

Some students rush to their campus career centers in search of guidance, sometimes days before commencement. Others look to graduate school not as a career enhancing opportunity, but rather an extension of their runway. It is no surprise that buyer’s remorse is so prevalent in higher education.

How do we address this issue? Start from within.

Treat every new experience as a hypothesis test.

TickConsider life as a scatterplot: Speaking with someone (or not)? Taking a course (or not)? Taking care of a loved one (or not)? Getting a job (or not)? Working on a project (or not)? Doing an internship (or not)? Joining a club (or not)? Volunteering with an organization (or not)?

Each experience accumulated (or foregone) is another observation on this scatterplot – and another opportunity to introspect:

  1. What attracted me to (or repelled me from) this?
  2. What did I enjoy / find to be a chore? Why?
  3. What was I good at / not good at? Why?
  4. How much do I like / respect the people? Why?
  5. To what extent can I live a comfortable, fulfilling life doing this? Why?

Imagine our desired future selves as the invisible regression line. If we have just two dots, it can be tempting to draw a straight line and yell “Eureka! I should become a [whatever]!”

But the more dots we can collect, the better our ability is to identify the sweet spot at the intersection of what we are good at, what we are passionate about, and what pays the bills.

This model is not perfect, but with it we can better leverage what we know about ourselves at the time to make more informed decisions about what school to attend, what field of study to pursue, which degree to obtain, and what job to take out of school. Though it takes time, effort, and serious introspection, our future selves will thank us.

[1] http://www.gallup.com/poll/211529/half-adults-change-least-one-education-decision.aspx

[2] https://www.newyorkfed.org/medialibrary/interactives/householdcredit/data/xls/sl_update_2016.xlsx

[3] https://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2016/05/02/student-debt-is-about-to-set-another-record-but-the-picture-isnt-all-bad/

Gorick Ng helps Millennials more successfully transition from school to the workplace. From his work Gorick has spent thousands of hours understanding the experiences of Millennials, career counselors, and employers – and the “soft skills” and “hard skills” gaps that exist.

Gorick is pursuing his MBA Harvard Business School and is a graduate of Harvard College, where he now serves as a Resident Tutor leading pre-career advising. He was the first in his family to attend high school and college and is passionate about helping young people pursue their dreams.

More on Gorick here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/gorickng

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