The True Value of College

Statistics show that students who graduate college earn substantially more money than those with only a high school degree. According to the Federal Reserve, a college degree is worth $830,000 more than a high school diploma in terms of lifetime earnings. Yet in most cases, the cost of student loans strap young adults as they’re trying to get ahead economically, and getting a degree does not perfectly equate to getting a good job, particularly in one’s chosen field.

So what is the true value of college?

Academically, college provides two types of education: foundational knowledge (content) and springboard learning (skills). A proper balance of these very different kinds of learning leads to the best lifetime results.

Foundational classes teach content and substance that forms the basis for career pursuits. College courses in biology and chemistry are prerequisites for medical school. Business majors learn about accounting, economic theory, management and marketing. Pre-law students may take Constitutional Law. Yet while these courses are valuable, that value is limited. Many of the “things” one learns in college become obsolete: medicine continually identifies new diseases and new cures, business adjusts as technology changes, and new laws are written by Congress and legal precedents are overturned by the Supreme Court. Moreover, those of us who have embarked upon careers know one thing is certain: we learn more in the first months on the job than we did in all of our years in school.

Courses focused on teaching the substance of a potential career should not be considered to be the panacea of lifetime success. Rather, treat “job prep” courses as starting points, not as the raison d’etre of college.

Springboard learning is accomplished by acquiring skills that remain useful regardless of substantive changes in one’s career field. Public speaking and writing classes teach valuable communication skills. Psychology and sociology provide insight into human behavior on individual and community scales. Foreign language and culture courses teach how other people act, philosophy expands one’s thought perspective, and liberal arts electives show students worlds that high school doesn’t even try to present. Even the selection of classes – and the different ways that different colleges guide students in the selection process – teaches a young adult how to make decisions within and without restriction.

College is truly an evolutionary experience. For most students, it is the first time away from home, the first time that they get to decide what to eat and when to rest, the first time with new friends but not old influences. They have spare time, practically nobody watching out for them, and they’re asked to make life decisions without guidance or even knowledge of jobs or what the world has to offer. Parents often want their children to receive “a good education,” yet just enrolling in a college is no guarantee of success.

Rather, consider college not as a collection of classes, but as a learning environment. The time spent outside of class far outweighs the time spent on academics. Think expansively about foundational and springboard classes, but also think about what happens outside the classroom as a significant component of one’s education. How is a campus laid out, and does that promote healthy social interaction? What assets and influences exist beyond the campus walls, not just for internships, but also for entertainment and life experiences?

In the end, think of college not as a bridge between youth and career, but as a place of extraordinary value to personal growth. Never become preoccupied with the avoidance of failure. Rather, consider college as a place for inspiration and a progenitor of success in life itself.