Two recent posts on this site have examined the value of a higher education and the current controversy surrounding the topic: "Pew Reports That Online Learning Doesn't Offer the Same Value as F-2-F – Yet" and "A Misleading Portrayal of Higher Education." There are numbers available which attempt to quantify the value, such as the 2010 U.S. census report which revealed that college graduates on average earn $19,500 more annually than those with only a high school diploma (U.S. Census, 2010). My own take on this debate, as someone who has spent the past 20+ years in higher education, as an undergraduate, graduate student, administrator, and faculty member, is that the real value of a higher education is not a quantifiable value, but rather is an individual judgment based on a several criteria:
- Individual academic and professional goals (What do I want to do with my life?)
- Individual personal goals (Who do I want to become as a person?)
- Financial considerations (What am I willing to pay for the experience?)
Academic and Professional Goals
Given, there are probably some people out there who have no interest in pursuing any form of higher education. It is also safe to assume, however, that if you are reading this blog, then you are interested in furthering your education. That said, an honest and open assessment of your career aspirations and how best to attain them is the perfect place to begin. This is not, however, a task that you can undertake in a vacuum. You will need both information and advice in order to fully understand the reality of your career aspirations. The Internet is a fantastic source of information on just about any possible career path you might be interested in. Do some background research on all of the possible careers you might be want to pursue and make a comparison list of:
- Required credentials/education
- Available programs and costs
- Average annual salary
- Job requirements
- Work duties/responsibilities
- Industry forecast
- Job prospects in your area or the area you plan to settle in
Having information is great, but you are still just starting in the process and may not know of other options available to you, or you may have overlooked critical aspects of some of your interests. At this point, you will need to find a career mentor to help guide your selections. Finding someone locally is the easiest and most rewarding avenue for mentorship. Find local professionals and make contact with them to ask for guidance because you are interested in their field. Also consider visiting not-for-profits that work with local job placement and adult education or see if you can make an appointment with a career counselor at a local college or university. You might be surprised at how willing people are to help out if you ask. If you can't find someone locally to mentor you in your career, consider an online mentoring service, such as StudentMentor.org, which has been featured in CNN Fortune, USA Today, and the Huffington Post. This non-profit works to match college students with professionals in their intended field.
Though separate from your career goals, your personal goals are no less important in determining how valuable higher education is to you. There are several avenues to pursue in your learning: learning for learning's sake, the well-rounded liberal arts approach, and vocationally-focused programs, to name a few. Knowing what you would like to get out of your education beyond a job can help guide you down a path that will not only be professionally fulfilling, but will lead to personal growth as well. There is no one who can help you determine this, and it will require careful reflection and thoughtful consideration of the things you enjoy doing in life. Do you enjoy reading Stephen Hawking or Stephen King? Do you read instruction manuals or just dive right in? Do you like to share what you have learned with others, or keep it to yourself? Answering these and other questions, then considering the implications for future learning will allow you to see exactly where you can add value to your life through education.
What is important to remember here is that the most expensive option is not always the best one. Every college, university, and degree program is different and any one of them could be the best match for you in terms of your professional and personal goals. Having a clear understanding of what those goals are will allow you to better determine if a particular program is a good fit for you. Make a list of several that work for you and their associated costs. The best value for you may be the least expensive program that covers the required learning. If a program fits your needs and budget, then it is a good value for you.
For some valuable information about how to choose the right college or program, check out this video featuring higher education experts explaining how to make the right college choice:
In addition to these individual priorities, a higher education, regardless of the program you choose, also helps an individual to develop some or all of the following invaluable character traits:
- Critical thinking
- Written and verbal communication
- Lifelong learning and intellectual flexibility
- A sense of belonging to something larger than oneself
What is often overlooked in the debate about the value of higher education is the societal value associated with having a more-educated population. The Founding Fathers understood this benefit and advocated for an educated citizenry who would be able to contribute their voices to the running of our country. The value of higher education extends far beyond being an informed citizen, however. We live in an increasingly uncertain world. A world where our unemployment rate is at an historic high, the disenfranchised are occupying Wall Street, and there is no clear end in sight. But more education means more informed minds considering the problems of our times and more voices entering the discussion regarding how to forge ahead. There is a value for all in learning. More information added to the knowledge that an individual already possesses allows for new and innovative thinking. We are at a point where we need every possible mind working on thinking about solutions to global problems.
One reason for higher education's current struggle to explain their value is a failure to clearly articulate what they actually do and how studying at the university level benefits not only the individual, but also society as a whole. So, ultimately, the current predicament that higher education finds itself in is one of establishing a clear identity and articulating the value of education for all.