Real World 101: Colleges Teach Dining, Taxes, Life

Times Staff Writer

Bob Pfahnl will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Santa Clara University next week, but he readily admits there is plenty he still ought to learn.

Like how to cook a good dinner and take care of a car.

Fortunately for students like Pfahnl, 22, schools around the country increasingly are offering “real world” and “life after college” programs. They are aimed at young people who, though often whizzes on the Internet, flunk out when it comes to managing their credit cards or making a plate of pasta.

The transition from academia to the adult working world always has been a tricky passage to navigate, and generations of students have left college not knowing which fork to use for the salad.

But for many fresh graduates these days, “their knowledge of the practical world is remarkably limited,” said Frederick J. Parrella, a Santa Clara theology professor who teaches a popular session on personal relationships in his school’s “Life After SCU” program for seniors.

From an early age, many children, particularly those from affluent homes, “don’t hang around the house. They’re out playing soccer ... or they’re out doing music lessons,” Parrella added. “The notion of learning from a tight-knit family community is just part of what has passed” from American culture.


Just how many programs in adult survival skills exist isn’t known, but the topics covered include etiquette, paying taxes, preventing identity theft and even how to choose a bottle of Chardonnay at a restaurant.

Alfred University, a school in upstate New York where the majority of undergraduates live on campus, launched a cooking program in the last school year that included such fundamentals as boiling water. One of the motivations: reducing the number of fire alarms set off by students who burn their microwave popcorn and bacon.

College seniors, experts say, sometimes lack practical skills because they spent their teens more preoccupied than previous generations with racking up the grades, SAT scores and activities needed to get into top colleges. Even if their high schools still offered home economics or shop classes, they had little time to take them.

John Gardner, founder of a center at the University of South Carolina that has studied the experiences of college seniors, added that many of today’s undergraduates have been more sheltered than their predecessors.

“They’ve really been pampered by these helicopter parents who hover over them at all times and provide them with everything,” Gardner said. The parents’ attitude, he added, often is, “What, my kid has to work and fend for herself? Heavens, no!”

Students, for their part, say they welcome helpful tips.

Pfahnl, who attended Santa Clara’s spring workshops on identity theft, relationships, real estate and travel, said he enjoyed looking beyond “the Santa Clara bubble.” Campus life, he said, “is your own little safety net. But that net gets taken away from you after graduation.”

Eli Girod, another Santa Clara senior, also appreciates getting sound advice. “You get what you hear from your dad or mom when you call,” he said, “and your friends think they’re experts on certain topics. But it’s all hearsay, and I want to hear from professionals.”

Students hear from them not only in workshops but also in for-credit courses.

Administrators around the country agree that such programs are spreading, but statistics remain scarce.

Perhaps the most recent assessment, by University of South Carolina researchers in 1999, found that about 7% of the 707 four-year colleges they surveyed offered such “transition” courses.

Separate research, released in January, pointed to the shortcomings of college seniors. The study found that 20% of students about to graduate from four-year colleges couldn’t perform the calculations needed to estimate when a car has enough gas to make it to the next filling station.

One of the major concerns, among parents and students alike, seems to be preparing meals. (The newspaper spoof the Onion last week captured these concerns with a story headlined: “Area Mother Can Only Imagine What Son Is Eating Right Now.”)

Caltech upgraded its cooking classes this spring into a three-credit course. But in keeping with the way things work at the powerhouse Pasadena school, this was no run-of-the-mill cooking class.

For the final exam, students were provided surprise ingredients and competed, without recipes, to prepare the best meals. The winner: a menu including a toasted baguette with backfin crab and goat cheese, prawns on fettuccine with bechamel sauce and grilled cedar plank Copper River salmon with hollandaise sauce.

“It’s about the most popular course on campus,” said Tom Mannion, the Caltech administrator who teaches Cooking Basics. The course is limited mostly to seniors, who enroll so fast that “it fills up within a half hour.”

(Mannion added that, since the introduction of the cooking course, the number of smoke alarms set off by burnt food in undergraduate housing has plunged from four or five a week to almost none.)

Financial literacy or personal finance classes have emerged at many campuses, including Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Fresno and Scripps College, a women’s institution in Claremont. At Scripps, students learn about the merits of buying versus leasing a car as well as owning versus renting a home, along with investment options and retirement savings plans. It’s all in a for-credit course that is a key part of the school’s “Money Wise Women” program.

Other programs take a more general approach. The University of Oklahoma’s “Life After OU: A Survival Guide” covers personal finance along with manners and civic involvement. To be admitted to the final exam, students are required to show that that they have registered to vote and written living wills.

College administrators and experts in student life say the growth of these programs reflects broader trends in higher education. Schools already have been trying to attract applicants with state-of-the-art fitness centers, rock climbing walls and improved food service.

Campus organizations for years also have provided “Wine, Dine and Act Fine” workshops to teach etiquette for business meals, while university career centers have held sessions on writing resumes and performing well in job interviews. The California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, recognizing its students’ unusual professional needs, offers a course that includes advice on contracts for selling artwork.

“Universities have always been about personal enrichment,” said George Kuh, director of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University. The rise of life-after-college programs “happens to widen the net a little bit.”

Gardner said schools started focusing more on the needs of seniors in the 1990s, partly with the goal of turning them into loyal alumni and, when they achieve success, into big donors.

Santa Clara’s “Life After SCU” program covers issues not found in some other real-world workshops. At a recent session on identity theft, about 30 students munched on pizza and drank beer and soft drinks while listening attentively to a police detective.

Pfahnl, an outgoing senior who already has lined up an after-graduation job, said he enjoyed that session and the others that he has attended. But he regrets that schoolwork caused him to miss cooking 101 and auto shop 101.

Although Pfahnl said he has picked up pointers on cooking by watching his mother at the family’s home in the San Jose area, changing the oil in his car remains a mystery. “I’m one of those pathetic guys,” he said with a laugh.