As far back as I can remember, my parents expected me to go to college and get a degree before I thought about working. It was a given.
To them – adults with only high school diplomas and locked into blue-collar jobs that kept them in the lower-middle class of the 1950s and 1960s – a college degree represented economic success. There was never any discussion about how college would help me find my place in the world, understand the world better, or obtain some deeper meaning of society. A college degree simply meant you could earn more money. Whatever their initial motivation, I was fortunate to obtain a college degree upon which I built a satisfying career.
Even today, the Department of Labor contends that college graduates earn 60 percent more over the course of a lifetime than those without a degree.
But somewhere along the line, we seem to have forgotten the value of a general education. When companies hire today, they are looking for specific skills and experience, as well as a college degree, which may or may not demonstrate any measure of learning success. Lately there is a backlash against getting a college education. Some contend it is unnecessary for many workers, who might better spend their money and time on certification courses rather than non-specific college studies.
Over the past 25 years, the number of people enrolled full-time in universities in the United States has increased 32 percent faster than the growth of the general population. That means college degrees are much more plentiful than they were in 1985. At the same time, average annual tuition has increased from $13,000 a year to more than $26,000 a year, and it is common for some private universities to charge around $50,000 per year.
As for a guaranteed, well-paying job, that concept is struggling in a tough economy. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that only 19.7 percent of 2009’s graduating college students had jobs by the time they graduated. Additional studies show that as many as 50 percent of the class of 2009 may still be looking for a job in their chosen profession.
Often, investing in a college education is like assuming a large mortgage and, frankly, that may not be a worthwhile investment for many people.
But college shouldn’t be all about your career or your earning power. A strong education builds a platform for better understanding and succeeding in the world. Colleges instill knowledge which is valuable to help one form one’s life’s work or contribute to society.
It’s rather silly to think of a college education as an investment that must achieve some specific return to be worthwhile.
My college freshman eyes were opened the day a history professor announced to my class that college was not about finding a job or making more money. I remember sitting straight up and wondering why I was there. My professor explained that the more I learned about the world around me, the easier it would be to identify how I would fit into that world.
Looking back, it seems like a pretty simple concept that had escaped me all those years. But a light went on when I realized college was not necessarily about making money, and I immediately became a better student.