The value of a college education

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January 21, 2013

10:04 PM

Most students — especially seniors — are worrying about finding a job after graduation. If you’re not stressing at all you can drop the act, because no one believes you. If you already have a job lined up that’s great, but you should know that the rest of us secretly hate you for it.

As graduation — and with it, entry into the real world — approaches, many of us are feeling daunted by the discouraging employment statistics. With the unemployment rate for recent college graduates high, some have suggested that working for a bachelor’s degree isn’t worth the time or money.

Maybe, some wonder, we need to step away from the convention of college education, which has become more of a traditional rite of passage than a practical investment.

However, a recent report from Pew Charitable Trusts gives cause to restore our faith in earning that degree. The report found that in the years following the 2007-2009 recession, “among Americans age 21 to 24, the drop in employment and income was much steeper among people who lacked a college degree.” That’s not to say that a college degree is an automatic ticket to a fancy job with a fat paycheck, but it definitely helps.

The notion that we might move away from the idea of a college education as a necessary prerequisite for a successful career is an interesting one. Nevertheless, if I put myself in the shoes of a hiring manager, I would value candidates’ college experiences far more than the degrees on their resumes.

Having graduated from college implies not only that you have a decent work ethic, but also that you’ve been exposed to four years’ worth of experiences that simply help round you out as a person. Through high school, it is very easy — almost inevitable, in fact — to be caught up in the routine you developed earlier in life.  You may have some of the same family friends from childhood. Maybe you played sports because your high school required you to, or you might not have read much because no one in your social group did.

In college, however, you have a fresh start. For the first time, virtually every decision you make is selfish — selfish in the sense that it is purely and simply for you. You can live proactively as opposed to reactively. You make friends not because your parents have been setting up playdates since birth, but because you share interests with them as (semi-) adults. I don’t mean to disregard the importance of that first type of friendship, because it has its own unique value and can’t be replaced. But the people with whom you surround yourself can now begin to make up a mosaic, each one highlighting a different part of you.

This column has now morphed into the nostalgic ramblings of a second-semester senior. But to get back to the main point, I would hire someone with a degree not just because of qualifications they may have in terms of the work itself, but because there is a certain growth of character that happens during these four years. It comes from both the freedom and the inevitable struggles that college provides.

Through our living situations, clubs, traveling and classes, we learn to compromise, pull our own load, follow through on plans, and deal with disappointment. We find out how we learn best, what type of people we work with well and which things we value the most. It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly when these learning moments occur, but they do.

Remember this if you ever find yourself questioning the payoff of your college investment: There’s no statistic for this development, no way to measure the progress that we make, but know that it’s there. If nothing else, there is value in learning to live actively and becoming your own person.

Email Emily Kelley at [email protected]

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  • Emily Kelley