The abundant value of a college degree goes beyond career readiness | Saunders

Dr. Martha Saunders is the sixth president of the University of West Florida.

High school students today are thinking hard on the value of a college degree before making the commitment to enroll. They are right to do so. College is a big investment of time and money and should not be undertaken lightly. And with a robust job market, why go to the bother? I can think of a few reasons.

For years, plentiful research has shown the monetary value of a college degree. People with bachelor’s degrees earn around 75% more than those with only a high school diploma. A report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce reveals “the higher the level of educational attainment, the larger the payoff.” Unemployment rates are lowest among degree-holders. High-paying jobs (earning more than $130,000) for people without a degree do exist, but they are hard to find.

To be sure, technical training provides excellent pathways to skilled trades. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law recently enacted by Congress is creating more jobs for individuals without baccalaureate degrees or with technical certifications; and the current stigmatization of vocational schooling appears to be lessening.

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I think we can agree that having a baccalaureate degree is an advantage, but that traditional trades and technical degrees can also yield satisfying earnings and lifestyles. So where does that leave us in terms of arguing on behalf of higher education? If we were to take career preparation out of the argument for seeking a degree, what’s left?

Out of curiosity, I conducted an informal nonscientific survey on the benefits of a college education. I asked 1,000 participants from my personal social media space what they valued most from their college years. This is what I learned.

Few of the respondents indicated career readiness as the greatest reward of their college experience. Instead, responses fell into two primary categories: lifelong friendships and caring faculty. Friendships kindled in college seemed especially important. Several individuals noted friends made then who are still friends. I saw frequent references to “forever” friendships and enhanced professional networking.

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Faculty mentors created core memories for many graduates. Interested professors make a difference to their students. Positive relationships between students and their professors influence nearly every aspect of academic life. Engaged faculty not only teach course content but advise their students on best courses to take and assist in placing them in those all-important first jobs. The best professors are dynamic in the classroom but open to challenge — in fact, they welcome it.

In other survey responses, I heard about the value of learning to think, and specific non-major courses that were helpful in later careers. According to one respondent, “The process of critical thinking illustrates there’s always an answer to whatever obstacle I face within my business.” Many noted the college experience simply gave them time to grow up, exercise independence and make decisions on their own.

Despite the nonscientific nature of my survey, I would wager that a more formal sampling model would yield similar results. The value of a college education goes far beyond job preparation.

Some may say that friendships, mentors, critical thinking skills and growth opportunities exist in other post-high school settings. While that is true, I would argue nowhere can these experiences be found in such abundance as through the college experience. Where else can one meet so many new people from diverse backgrounds, be introduced to so many new ideas and fall into the care of so many learned professionals in such a compressed time period? This abundance, I believe, makes all the difference.

Abundance is an essential aesthetic of joy according to Ingrid Fetell Lee, in her book, “Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness.” She writes, “‘Like a kid in a candy store’ is one of the most iconic images of joy in our culture expressing the wild, almost delirious pleasure we take in being let loose in a bountiful world.”

Can we equate the abundance of our college days to kids in a candy store? It was for me. I reveled in the delicious luxury of it all. That may explain why I’ve spent so much of my life hanging around campuses.

Martha D. Saunders is president of the University of West Florida.

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: The value of a college degree goes beyond career readiness | Saunders