Those were the words that my high school counselor told me my senior year in high school. The subject of college has come up several times in the past couple of weeks. *Disclaimer: This post may contain a fair level of hypocrisy and reflects the views of the author, not necessarily any organization with which he is affiliated.
So the question to ponder is what is the value of a college education? And is it for everyone?
One of the most successful people I am associated with does not have a college degree. He is a World Champion in his field, is a role model for many professionals in his field and can impress anyone from a molecular geneticist to a librarian with his knowledge and intellect. On the other end of that spectrum, I have a friend with an advanced degree who is still holding out for his dream job. Many of the jobs that he would be suitable for him are “beneath” his education level. I was recently asked by a friend of mine to counsel his daughter who was contemplating returning to school about why it was important to get her degree. As I rattled off the standard reasons that all of us parents have for sending our kids to college and achieving the American Dream, I realized that I was telling her things we have been programmed to say, not what I really meant.
At the Santa Fe Ranch, one of our primary target audiences are young people. We work with young people from pre-kinder through college age. Some of our most impactful programs occur with high school students. If you ever want to be humbled, work with this age sometime. They are amazing in their energy, enthusiasm and hope for the future. They will also impress you with their level of community involvement and strong feeling that the world is unjust and that they will make a difference. While a great number of these students have strong family support systems and are on track to apply to colleges and universities, so many do not perceive that they can afford college or cannot attend for financial reasons. I will boldly state that there is no greater financial investment in your future than a college degree. With a daughter midway through her second year of college at the University of Arizona, I can attest to this. So is the financial investment worth it?
The arguments that a college degree is not a wise investment focus on the rising cost of college, the accumulation of student debt, stagnant job opportunities and the perceived, decreasing quality of a traditional college education. In March, 2012, student loan debt reached $1 trillion for the first time. The most compelling argument is that the vast majority of required skills needed for a career are learned on a job. In fact, the more successful business leaders started with their companies at an entry level position and know the entire business from the bottom up and inside out. So why not spend that four (or five) years that you are stuck in college learning the business and moving your way “up the ladder”? Why not use your time and money learning a marketable skill rather than spending that time in a college classroom? Another possibly persuasive argument is that knowledge used to be centralized in colleges and universities. With the internet and other knowledge banks, this is not true in today’s world. Why study animal nutrition when you can google the protein requirements for mid-gestation beef cows?
I will argue that there is a difference between a college degree and a college education. The degree is the end product of the four (or five) years one spends at school. An education is the process and the accumulation of knowledge. If one seeks a college degree solely for the purpose of obtaining success in a given field or expect an immediate financial return on their investment, then they are probably going to be disappointed. If a person goes into college seeking an education, they are probably bound to be more satisfied and successful. My own experience shows me that I learned more skills that I apply very day in my work through retail and other assorted jobs during college than I did in any classroom. But I will also tell you that the fundamental education and relationships I built during college have all immensely contributed to any professional success I have had.
So here’s the bottom line in this season of resolutions. The pursuit of knowledge is much more important than the process you choose. Whether you choose to attend a college, university, trade school or just read, do it. I guarantee that I do not know the answer to whether college is a good investment for you, but I do know that hard work, continuous self-improvement and investment in yourself will pay off. That’s probably the only reason that my high school counselor’s words did not come true.