: The Lessons I Didn't Learn in College
, November 13, 2006 issue
To think there was once a time when I thought nailing the interview was the hardest part of getting a job.
I recently applied to be a cocktail waitress at an upscale bowling alley in Manhattan. After a brief
interview, the manager congratulated me, saying I'd be a great fit. It was only a momentary victory. She
produced a sheaf of papers, and my stomach turned flips. I knew what was coming—the dreaded W-4. I'd
filled them out before, for various summer jobs, but I'd always been exempted from taxes because I was a
full-time student. Now that I had graduated from college, this was the first W-4 I had to complete fully.
The manager watched as I hesitated. "Are you having trouble?" she asked as I squinted at the tiny print.
"Oh, no, I'm fine." I stared at the form, trying to figure out how many allowances to claim—or what an
for that matter. I didn't want to admit that I was stumped, so finally I just took a guess.
Later I asked my friends to shed some light on the matter, but none of them knew any more than I did.
Instead, they advised me to do what they did: make it up and hope for the best. So much for being a well-
educated college graduate.
Having taken seminars on government, I could hold forth on the relationship between taxation and the
federal deficit but was clueless about filling out a basic tax form. I'd graduated with a B.A. in philosophy
in May, and had decided against going straight to graduate school. But while countless newspapers
claimed that the job market for graduates was the best it had been in years, I had no idea how to take
advantage of it. I couldn't imagine myself in an entry-level administrative position staring at a spreadsheet
for eight hours a day—partly because it sounded dull, but also because in college I had never learned how
to use spreadsheet programs. Cocktail waitressing seemed like a good way to make ends meet.
My friends and I are graduates of Wesleyan, Barnard, Stanford and Yale. We've earned 3.9 GPAs and
won academic awards. Yet none of us knows what a Roth IRA is or can master a basic tax form. And
heaven help us when April comes and we have to file tax returns.
My friends and I are incredibly lucky to have gotten the educations we have. But there's a discrepancy
between what we learn in school and what we need to know for work, and there must be some way for
universities to bridge this gap. They might, for example, offer classes in personal finance as part of the
economics department. How about a class on renting an apartment? Granted, it might be hard to lure
students to such mundane offerings, but the students who don't go will wish they had.
College students are graduating with greater debt than ever before, yet we haven't learned how to manage