Philosophically speaking, a college education is a great value

Tuesday , September 19, 2017 - 4:00 AM

JEFF STEAGALL, special to the Standard-Examiner

A recent spate of articles and commentaries questioned the value of a college education. Concerns include the high and rapidly-rising cost of education, unmanageable debt levels, whether college graduates obtain marketable skills and whether some majors constitute “degrees to nowhere.”

There are certainly problems associated with high tuition bills and student debt, although both are often overstated. There are plenty of affordable, high-quality options available just in Utah. And those non-Utahns paying huge in-state tuition rates in their own states, instead of paying lower out-of-state rates in Utah, just haven’t done their pre-college homework.

As for the other arguments, they are mainly just wrong. The U.S. economy created about 11 million jobs in a recent five-year period. Of those, only about 80,000 were filled by students with high school degrees. That left 11 million jobs to split among those with some college, or who those who had earned a bachelor’s degree (the largest group), and those who earned a master’s degree. College graduates also earn $1 million more in lifetime earnings than high school graduates. That alone ought to make college worth it.

There are equally important non-financial benefits of college. Graduates understand the world, as well as their locales, better. They have more options for where to work and where to live. They tend to be more engaged in their communities. This list goes on, regardless of their majors.

But while the question of whether a college degree is a good investment really isn’t a serious question, there is a legitimate concern. Students seem not to know how to get the full value out of their college experience. In many cases, they deliberately pass over opportunities that would further enhance what they get out of college.

So, students, listen up. Here are four tips to make college a truly transformative experience:

First, college is an investment, not a one-time purchase. Paying tuition doesn’t get you knowledge. Neither does buying the textbook (and, yes, you really should buy that book and read it).

Reading, listening, thinking and discussing get you knowledge. Invest your time in those activities, even if you have competing priorities, to maximize what you learn from your classes.

Second, major in a field about which you’re passionate. Life is too short to spend it in a career you hate. Don’t major in what your parents want you to major in, unless it’s also what you truly want. Study what you love. That will make it much easier to continue to invest time and energy studying semester after semester.

If you don’t know what you’re passionate about, no problem. The university exists to expose you to a veritable universe of topics. You have to take “general education” courses to graduate from any American university. Take a variety. Then, if you think you love the material in a subject, take another course in that area from a different professor to see whether you love the subject or the just that teacher.

If you end up loving a discipline that some have called “degrees to nowhere,” remind people that a recent study ranked majors by earnings 30 years after graduation, and guess which major topped the list? (Hint: Good students keep reading when they want to find answers.)

Third, grades do matter. You can graduate by squeaking out a C average. You can’t necessarily get a college-graduate-quality job that way.

Nearly half of the firms that interview bachelor’s students won’t talk to a student with a grade-point average under 3.0 (that’s a B average). A third of employers don’t want to interview students with GPAs under 3.3.

Investing in reading, listening, thinking and discussing pays off at graduation. In a recession, it pays off with job offers instead of unemployment. In a strong economy, it pays off through more job offers, more choice, higher salaries and upward mobility.

The first three tips are probably unsurprising, but the most successful students take a fourth step. They get involved in the university beyond the classroom.

They join student clubs or serve in student government. They listen to speakers outside of class. They attend plays and concerts. They play intramural sports. They tutor other students. They find mentors among the faculty and staff. Participation allows students to get to know others to develop a support network to help them through the tough midterms and final exams and who then turn into lifelong friends.

So, students, invest in yourselves, find your passion, get good grades and be active members of the campus community. Do those things, and your college experience is guaranteed to be worthwhile. But only you can make that happen.

Oh, and that highest-paying major? Philosophy!

Dr. Jeff Steagall is the dean of Weber State University’s John B. Goddard School of Business & Economics and a professor of economics. Twitter: @SteagallJeff

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