Defining the Value of A College Degree
An op-ed by Andrew Heikkila
Growing up, plenty of kids hear that if they want to succeed in life, they’ll have to get a college degree. For the average kid subscribing to the traditional “money equals success” philosophy, this doesn’t always ring true, especially if they’re under the impression that success goes hand in hand with opulence, i.e. a flat on the beach and a Lamborghini in the garage. For others, success means more than money. It means accomplishing what is important to them, leading fulfilling lives, and leaving their impact on the world.
Generally, these kids will have to go to college too, but because they are going for a different reason, they will have a completely different experience. On average they will find college more fulfilling, reaping value from the knowledge they cultivate and through the skills they obtain, both of which will further them in terms of their ultimate goal–which isn’t as banal as simply cashing a paycheck at the end of the week.
Unfortunately, fewer students are going into college focused on the inherent value of learning or on how their education will actually contribute to their skill or trade–which isn’t surprising when society’s main message surrounding college is that kids will simply have to go if they ever want to make money in life. This needs to stop.
Is STEM the best college degree?
A recent trend in post-secondary education has been to focus on STEM (Science, Techology, Engineering, and Math) skills. Articles with the titles “If you want to be rich and powerful, majoring in STEM is a good place to start”, and “Want to earn more money? Study STEM.” make the subtle promise that college students, especially college students that don’t focus on arts and humanities, can live more successful, if not affluent, lives if only they obtain a college degree in one of the STEM disciplines.
This focus on what STEM can get you, and not on what STEM actually is, entices those that have no idea what they want out of a career to gravitate more toward these technical skills–which, at first glance, seems like a good thing, especially for minority students. According to a USC study, minority college students who major in STEM fields earn at least 25% more than peers who study humanities or education and around 50% more if they actually take jobs related to their degrees. As a result, community colleges have begun to focus on offering STEM education to a much greater extent, as they appeal to minorities, first generation college students, and low-income applicants.
Here’s the problem: there’s still a humongous “skills gap”. From Information Technology to manufacturing, industries across the globe are complaining that they are not getting enough applicants with the right hard skills, soft skills, attitudes–basically with the right “level of employability”. Employers oftentimes will cite that colleges aren’t adequately preparing their students for jobs, or that Millennials nowadays are lazy. Interestingly enough, some people think that declining numbers of employee-training programs and unrealistic expectations and standards on the side of the employer are to blame for the illusion of a lack of skills in the industry.
Either way, the point is that we have to stop enticing students to enroll in college by telling them how much money they are going to make, especially in the STEM field, because it’s not helping. In fact, it may be hurting. An interesting statistic shows that 32% of college students pick a major that doesn’t interest them–and also that this same 32% are less-likely to graduate. Perhaps if college was framed in such a way that it’s not just a stepping stone to make money, but an opportunity to pursue whatever field or study a student wants to identify with, we’d see more successful students landing more jobs after college, motivated intrinsically to try harder and succeed at what interests them. This type of paradigm-shift needs to begin happening at younger ages to truly cultivate interest in students, and to create the type of workforce that wants to be innovative and change the world instead of work subserviently for their yearly salary.
College degrees don’t guarantee upward mobility
In January of 2014, The Atlantic ran a piece by Andrew Simmons titled “The Danger of Telling Poor Kids That College Is the Key to Social Mobility”. In it, Simmons writes about a girl named Isabella. Isabella authored a college admissions essay, in which she highlighted her career-goal of becoming an oceanographer–but more importantly, Isabella’s essay explored the rhetoric that teachers and educators use to spur students into applying for college, lamenting that college is thought of, foremost, as a path to socioeconomic mobility.
Simmons sums it up by stating that “when administrators, counselors, and teachers repeat again and again that a college degree will alleviate economic hardship, they don’t mean to suggest that there is no other point to higher education. Yet by focusing on this one potential benefit, educators risk distracting them from the others, emphasizing the value of the fruits of their academic labor and skipping past the importance of the labor itself. The message is that intellectual curiosity plays second fiddle to financial security.”
Simmons goes on to explore how this rhetoric isn’t found as often in private schools. Because more privileged students don’t have to worry about money as much, you see far fewer of them talking about what they’re going to get out of their college degrees, and more about what they’re going to do with them. In contrast, less-privileged students are more prone to a preoccupation with the money they can squeeze from that degree. They fantasize about all the cars, the big houses, and the lavish meals that they’ll buy after they become a lawyer–but they don’t know the difference between civil and criminal litigation. “Students hear that being a doctor is great because doctors can make money, enjoy respect, and have a great life,” says Simmons. “They don’t hear that being a doctor is a great because doctors possess the expertise to do great things.”
These examples epitomize why the “college equals money equals success” rhetoric is hamstringing kids from an early age. Instead of trying to expand their minds and lead lives that are intellectually fulfilling, children are learning that you should ditch passion and creativity and instead simply need to take steps, follow instructions, and earn money to live a good life.
A difficult choice: college or passion
It’s interesting to see the amount of articles and blog posts claiming that following your passion is bad advice, and the variety of reasons that these articles warrant to back their claims. The better of these articles simply place emphasis on the fact that it is not enough just to follow your passion, and that advice is to be respected. People that follow their passions have to work hard. That’s the tradeoff–but it’s the passion, not the paycheck, that makes the hard work worth it at the end of the day.
That’s what we should be teaching kids; not that college is the answer to upward fiscal mobility, but that college is the doorway to intellectual liberation, and the best tool to help those that do want to follow their passions.
Boise, IDAndrew Heikkila is a Millennial that likes to write about issues he considers pressing to this generation. One of the founders of Boise-based artist and humanitarian collective Earthlings Entertainment, he's always looking at how to better the lives of those around him.