The Invisible Curriculum: What Colleges Fail To Teach

Getting a degree isn’t going to get you a job. Period.

“Well, duh Visaal of course liberal arts majors are going to have a tough time finding a job, but chill bro we’re good cause we’re in STEM.” Not true. Although our job prospects are significantly better, I’ve seen, over and over again, people in complete anguish with how they spent four years and thousands of dollars getting a degree and are still not able to find a software engineering job even after sending hundreds of applications out into this “record-breaking hot job market.”

The story that hit me the hardest was when I was chatting with an Uber driver on my way back from the STL airport. We were talking about college, since he figured I was a student, and mentioned how he had a degree in actuarial science but could never find a job using the degree. He said bluntly with a hint of regret that “I made more money from trucking than I ever did with my degree” and concluded that getting jobs were more about “who you know than what you know."

I was shocked that the Uber driver concluded that even for actuaries, a highly technical career assessed by a series of increasingly difficult statistics exams, what you knew didn’t matter as much as who. You can’t just walk into an actuarial job because your uncle is an exec at the company and figure out how to statistically asses risk; you’d be fired within a week.

Only after experiencing firsthand the complete mismatch between excelling in your degree and what is required of you to get a job in my own field of CS did it dawn on me the Uber driver was right all along. Who you knew did matter immensely, but instead of needing to know an exec to get a job, you needed to know the people that can teach you The Invisible Curriculum — the knowledge gap between getting a degree and landing a job.

The Invisible Curriculum is the knowledge gap between getting a degree and getting a job

hey how's your day been? actual depiction of the knowledge gap

There are so many hardworking people out here being sold the story that getting an education will lead you to a better life. They take the initiative and, against all odds, bootstrap their way towards completing a degree only to have their souls crushed when the rejection letters start coming in when they apply for jobs.

The status quo and the collegiate institution has utterly failed these students. Universities take pride in not being job training programs, but what do most people go to university in the first place for?

To. Get. Better. Jobs.

To be fair, some universities have realized that this knowledge gap exists and have invested in career centers. WashU had a great career center, and I was able to learn so much about how to craft an effective resume, what are companies looking for when asking behavioral questions, and other solid career advice. I wondered why this insane value-add of a resource was so overlooked.

“dude, I can’t find a job idk what I’m doing wrong”

“have you been to the Career Center?”

“the what?”

this conversation happened at least a dozen times

Even so, the career center is more of a bandaid than a guiding force throughout a student’s college experience. It’s almost as if the college administration was caught off guard that their students weren’t able to get good jobs after college (presumably in some trustee board meeting where some analyst presented the lackluster employment metrics of graduates), so they invested in a career center.

College was never designed to make you employable

The issue with the behemoth that is the current day bloated academic institution is that they’re so massive — they have so much organizational inertia — that it would be nearly impossible for them to change anything foundational about them. Yeah, they can slap on some bandaids like career centers, but they can’t redesign the institution from the ground up.

As universities keep raising tuition year after year, college becomes less and less valuable. The industry is ripe for disruption. It’s already happening with companies like Lambda School focused on cultivating the next generation of software engineers by educating (not training) with the focus of being employable. It’s accelerating with the demand towards exceptional online education during this Great Lockdown. Most universities will not be able to keep up.

If you’re an incoming freshman, already in college, or you know there’s absolutely no way you’re going to convince your parents to not going to college, don’t fret. College can still be an immensely rewarding and worthwhile experience, both personally and professionally. But you can’t let the system suck you in and churn you out with only a diploma to show for it.

You’re going to have to take control.

You’re going to have to figure out what you want out of college.

You’re going to have to build your own Invisible Curriculum.

Learn how to build your own Invisible Curriculum

Although everyone’s Invisible Curriculum will be different, the guiding principle remains the same:

Learn as much as you can from people that are doing what you want to do

For me, I wanted to build cutting edge software, so I looked out for people that were software engineers in Silicon Valley. I seeked out advice from upperclassmen who got software internships. I watched youtube videos and read blogs from new grad software engineers and industry veterans. Finally, I distilled their advice to implement it in a way that worked for me. No college professor or advisor can come close – it’s just not in their expertise.

In the future, I plan on sharing a couple more experiences on how I filled in the gap between a degree and a job in software engineering, both to pay it forward for the people that helped me and to make this specific Invisible Curriculum a little more visible.


The unemployment and underemployment statistics in the description of this post were from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's data from July 2020.